Study Reveals What The Cutoff Age Might Be For Quickly Learning New Languages

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Anyone who wants to learn a new language might have only up until their late teens to learn that language quickly. This was one of the key findings in a new study based on the results of grammar tests originally posted on Facebook.

In a study published in the journal Cognition and cited by BBC News, researchers analyzed the results of an online grammar test that was taken by close to 670,000 people. The participants came from different parts of the world and were of different ages at the time they took the test, which was posted on Facebook to encourage as many people as possible to take part. Aside from the actual test where they were asked to determine if a certain English sentence is grammatically correct, the participants were also given a questionnaire where they provided their age and asked questions such as how long they have been learning English, and if they moved to an English-speaking country from one where English isn’t the native language.

Based on the questionnaire results, the youngest participant was 10-years-old, while the oldest was in their late 70s, with most of the test takers in their 20s and 30s. About 37 percent of the participants said that they were native English speakers who had only spoken that language while growing up, while the remaining 63 percent or so spoke at least two languages.

Using computer modeling techniques to crunch the test results, the researchers determined that learning a new language is easiest in childhood. As further noted, this skill remains easy to pick up when one is in their teenage years, usually until the age of 17 or 18, but starts becoming difficult in adulthood. However, the researchers also acknowledged that it’s possible for people to learn new languages at a more advanced age, though they might only become “proficient, if not seamlessly fluent,” BBC News wrote.

Separately, the Daily Mail added that the timeframe in a person’s childhood where it is easy to learn new languages is known as the “critical period,” where people take advantage of their brain being more elastic and flexible at that age by absorbing large amounts of information and being able to determine the rules and mechanics of a new language’s grammar.

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In a statement, study co-author and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of brain and cognitive sciences Josh Tenenbaum said that it’s not clear why people start having a hard time learning new languages once they reach their late teens, though this might be because of biological, cultural, and social changes.

“There’s roughly a period of being a minor that goes up to about age 17 or 18 in many societies. After that, you leave your home, maybe you work full time, or you become a specialized university student. All of those might impact your learning rate for any language.”

Although the study backed up previous research that also suggested people start having a hard time learning a new language during their late teens or early adulthood, some experts offered critical comments about the new research. BBC News quoted the University of York’s Dr. Danijela Trenkic, who said that the study only focused on grammar, but not on language’s other aspects, as people can still be “excellent communicators” despite grammatical imperfections. Trenkic’s remarks were backed up her University of York colleague professor Marilyn Vihman, who said that it’s “questionable” to say that people can only become proficient native speakers of a language in childhood.

“I don’t think there is a critical age as such, just a plateau that sets in after the teen years for most but not all speakers,” said Vihman.