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Language Learning

Time for Kids logo Time for Kids 1/14/2019 Jamie Ducharme for TIME, adapted by TFK editors
© ILLUSTRATION BY FRANCESCO CICCOLELLA FOR TIME

Learning a new language is hard. In a recent study, scientists found the age at which your chances of reaching fluency in a new language drop off. That age is 10. Does that mean you should quit your French class if you are older than 10? Non!

The study appeared in the journal Cognition. It found that it’s “nearly impossible” to reach fluency if you start learning a language after age 10. That’s not because your language skills start to get worse. “You’re still learning fast,” says Joshua Hartshorne. He is a coauthor of the study. “It’s just that you run out of time, because your ability to learn starts dropping at around 17 or 18 years old.”

The authors say people who try to learn a new language after age 10 may still become quite good. But they will probably not become fluent.

A Child’s Mind

Kids may be better than adults at learning new languages for many reasons. One is that children’s brains are more adaptable than adults’ brains. This means they are better able to change. “All learning involves the brain changing,” Hartshorne says. “Children’s brains seem to be a lot more adept at changing.”

Kids may also be more willing to try new things. And adults may rely on the rules and patterns of their first language. But kids are able to approach a new language with a blank slate.

Behind the Study

For the study, researchers made an online quiz. The quiz guessed people’s first language, dialect, and home country. It did this based on their answers to English grammar questions. After taking the quiz, people entered their real first language. They also entered if and when they had learned any other languages and where they had lived.

Nearly 670,000 people took the quiz. This gave researchers lots of data from English speakers of many ages and backgrounds. They analyzed people’s answers and grammar mistakes. This helped them draw conclusions about language learning.

The study offers tips for adults who want to learn a language. Researchers found that moving to a place where your chosen language is spoken is the best way for adults to learn. Kids and adults can also find native speakers in their community to talk with. This will help them practice speaking a new language. Now that’s worth talking about!

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