Why is it so hard to learn a foreign language as an adult?

2 min read

If you’ve ever tried to learn a foreign language after high school, you probably found it a lot harder than you did when you were younger.

Good news — it’s not just you. Pretty much everyone has a hard time learning a new language when they’re older. Why do our brains have so much trouble grasping these new patterns? Why do our tongues suddenly trip over unfamiliar pronunciations? Let’s look at what happens to our brains as we grow up that makes it so challenging to learn a foreign language.

Science says...

It’s no secret that our brains change as we get older. But is there evidence to say we can’t learn a language, or that we’re worse at it after a certain age? No.

It turns out that what stops us isn’t decreasing brain function after all. In fact, it’s almost the opposite. As adults, our knowledge base is so different that it affects our ability to learn anything, not just languages.

Learning too much or too intensely may also play a role in why adults find it so hard to pick up a new language. When you’re a kid, your brain is empty of real-world knowledge. But as you age, you’re learning math, reading books, remembering dates, and trying to figure out how taxes work. Are you really surprised there’s no room left for Japanese or Arabic?

But there’s still hope! In Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, the areas of the brain responsible for processing language, there are little difference in function from youth to adulthood — barring injuries or disorders. The only big differences occur in the elderly, where function slows. This still doesn’t make it impossible to learn new languages.

Are adults too smart?

Yes, you read that right. It’s possible that adults learn so much over the course of their lives that their brains are packed. The amount of knowledge already in our brains makes it harder to fit more in — especially when the existing stuff is too important to push aside.

The concept of necessity explains why even adults learn language faster with immersion. If you’ve ever studied a language in college for the first time, you know it’s a lot slower than moving to a country where people primarily speak that language. If you NEED to learn that language to complete your basic daily tasks, you’re going to learn quickly.

Adults have one more thing most children don’t — self-consciousness. Have you ever listened to a toddler just beginning to form sentences? How often did they mess up the words?

Kids aren’t afraid to get it wrong. You probably are. Plus, you’re not always listening to native speakers talk all day. If kids didn’t have that advantage, they wouldn’t learn language so fast either.

If you’re slower at picking up a foreign language now than you were as a kid, don’t beat yourself up over it. You’re not alone. But maybe this is encouraging for you! All you need is a little space in your brain and the confidence of a toddler.

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