The ideal time to start learning a second language is between the ages of 10 and 18, according to new research.
Previous studies have concluded that adults have a much harder time learning a foreign language than children, primarily due to the fact that adults try too hard. Basically, the older we get, we overthink everything — something that doesn’t work in our favor when it comes to learning things like proper sentence structure and grammar in a second language. However, scientists have yet to establish exactly when the optimal time to introduce a second language is — until now.
A large new study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston College analyzed data from 670,000 people of different ages who were in different stages of learning English. Researchers scoured multiple scientific papers on language learning and pinpointed the grammatical rules most likely to derail a non-native speaker, then created an online quiz for people to take. Once users who took the quiz completed it, they were asked how old they currently were and at what exact age they started learning English.
Researchers discovered that the brain is most receptive to fluency until the age of 18. However, the optimal time an individual should start learning a second language is before the age of 10. “We don’t see very much difference between people who start at birth and people who start at 10, but we start seeing a decline after that,” explained Hartshorne.
Why is 18 the magic number? Study co-author Josh Tenenbaum, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, told the BBC there might be a “biological change” that occurs around that age. “It’s also possible that it’s something social or cultural,” he said. “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.”
This isn’t to say you can’t learn a language in adulthood. So if you were thinking about taking a class, investing in Rosetta Stone or spending the summer in Spain, you absolutely still should.
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