Learning a Second Language as an Adult versus as a Child

Adults vs children learning languagesWe live in a society that tends to celebrate youth, and this extends to their abilities to learn. This doesn’t help the fact that many of us feel that we’re getting too old to adopt a new skill or start on another career path. A lot of this negativity is self-directed, and when it comes to learning another language, we often discourage ourselves by thinking that it’s too late for us to start, that younger people are more successful in these endeavours.

While it’s certainly true that multi-linguism can be easier with the benefit of youth, it’s not impossible to achieve later in life. By applying some energy and useful tools, we can become fluent conversationalists. That said, we also need to be mindful of how we approach the challenges that childhood learners aren’t privy to.

So what are the differences between learning as an adult as opposed to a child? What strategies can old learners employ to mitigate the difficulties of age? Let’s take a closer look so you can get started in receiving the vast cultural benefits of adopting a new tongue!

Learning Behaviour

One of the main differences you’ll find between learning a language as a child and as an adult is the level of effort that you’ll need to put in. Kids have the benefit of more neuroplastic brains — their neural networks are just better at making new connections and adapting to change. This means that kids don’t learn a language as much as they acquire it through exposure. They are more naturally adept at imitating the sounds they hear and retaining the information.

That’s not to say that learning as an adult is worse — we are better at understanding the rules, such as grammar and context. At the same time, we often feel as though we have licence to flout these rules. While this makes for a less rigid experience of language learning, the downside is we can take longer to develop true fluency. We don’t necessarily have the same natural aptitude as children, so we have to work a little harder to shirk these bad habits. As a result, why we need to place extra focus on learning behaviour. We must adopt methods and hacks which can make up the shortfall in our passive cognitive abilities.

Adult learning theories vary, but there are some common themes. Older learners often want to take charge of their own education, there’s a need for internal motivation and an understanding of why they must learn this skill, and learning through experiences or tasks is preferred. This suggests that adults can be more effective in learning a new language by adjusting their behaviour to fit this knowledge. Set goals that your education can help you achieve, find practical applications for this new language and make the effort to have conversations with native speakers.

Tech Tools

We live in a digital age. As a result, we benefit from a lot of technology that makes our lives a bit easier — including for learning languages. At present, children have something of a head start here because we’re seeing the first couple of generations of digital natives. They’re introduced to technology at an early age and are more comfortable with its use. This means that they don’t have quite so steep of a learning curve when using language apps and devices. The downside to this is parents need to limit their kids’ screen time to create a healthy balance.

As adults, we also have the benefit of accessing technology to achieve our language goals. These are often designed in ways that use familiar elements of our lives to overcome the unfamiliarity of using devices for learning. Duolingo is one of the key tools on the market, and takes a gamified approach; there is a fun (if sometimes menacing) character to encourage us, and we work toward achievements. It also capitalizes on our adult concerns for time, prompting us to use it for just 5 minutes per day.

While many children’s apps are geared toward vocabulary and hitting targets, the adult tech tends to be more focused on empowering us to have conversations in person. Platforms have been emerging that use tools like Skype to help facilitate a relaxed, easy experience. Alongside providing exercises, online tutoring services connect users to native speakers, with some linking you up with people in the local area. This capitalizes on the idea that adults want to use language as a tool to build relationships and real-life experiences.

Environmental Control

You should never underestimate how important your environment is to language learning. We spend a lot of time making certain that children have positive, supportive surroundings for their lessons. Our school classrooms include visual elements on the walls, and they have the benefit of learning alongside other new language speakers using games and exercises. However, the downside to this is that kids don’t have the same access and freedom of choice to learning environments that adults can enjoy.

It is commonly accepted that one of the most effective ways to learn a language is by immersing yourself in it. As an adult, we can travel to a country in which our chosen new language is widely spoken. This may be as a short term visitor, or we can truly throw ourselves in the deep end by living and working abroad for a period. There are certainly challenges in doing this, but it also allows us to reach out and gain a deeper understanding of the culture and context of language that children generally can’t achieve.

Even if we’re not quite ready to uproot our lives, as adults we have an understanding of what surroundings help our learning, and the power to make changes. Our experiences in workplaces give us insight into how our environment impacts our productivity and learning. Whether we need a cozy, comfortable space to relax and listen to audio lessons, or formal study space to knuckle down to the theory, we can make this happen.


Learning a new language is a rich, rewarding experience no matter what age you are. Though children have the benefits of their youth for absorbing a language, as adults we also have some distinct advantages. By understanding how we learn, and what tools and environments help us best, we can enjoy the advantages of being fluent in a new tongue.

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