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There is no “cut-off age” for learning a language Posted by on May 14, 2018 in CL-150, Language Learning, Language News

There are many myths surrounding language learning: some people are “gifted” with a language-learning gene, raising children bilingual will impair their English skills, and there’s no need to learn a language anyway because everyone speaks English.

While those myths have been repeatedly debunked in recent years, there is one misconception that persists: a cut-off age for learning a language. Here are a few headlines circulating widely just this week:

  • Scientists reveal cut-off age for learning a new language (The Independent)
  • Study: Language-Learning Ability is Strong Until Late Teens (Education Week)
  • Want to be fluent in a language: You need to start before the age of 10 to have any chance of speaking like a native (Daily Mail)
  • Becoming fluent in another language as an adult might be impossible – but I’m still going to try (Guardian)

Oddly enough, these articles are all in response to a new study that makes no such claims. In “A Critical Period for Second Language Acquisition”, scientists from MIT and Harvard analyze data from a grammar quiz taken by an impressive 669,498 native and non-native English speakers. (The study is behind a pay-wall, but the entire data set used in the study was released publicly here.)

cut-off age

Research suggests there is a “critical period” for language learning.

In short, the researchers found that quiz takers who began learning a language before age 18 were more likely to reach native-like proficiency levels compared to those who started later in life. They refer to this as the “critical period” for language learning—a threshold after which it becomes more difficult to reach native-like levels. Journalists lazily misrepresented this conclusion as an age limit for learning languages, to the discouragement of adult learners.

The critical period hypothesis was first introduced in the late 1950s, in the context of first language acquisition. A number of studies have extended the hypothesis to second language acquisition, though it is less widely accepted. There is still debate around which skills are susceptible to the critical period, when this period begins, and how long it lasts.

Whether you subscribe to the hypothesis or not, a “critical period” does not equate to a “cut-off age.” In his own analysis of the study’s raw data, language learner and developer Scott Chacon came to a very different conclusion: the truth is much more interesting and encouraging.

You do not need to reach native-like proficiency to communicate meaningfully in a foreign language.

Most reporting on this topic fails to mention one key distinction: “native-like” proficiency does not mean “fluency”. The quiz used in the MIT study does not focus on the ability to understand and be understood—the questions measure very high-level grammatical knowledge.

Consider the ILR scale, the proficiency scale used by the US Government to measure the language abilities of diplomats and military personnel. The highest score—a 5, or “Functionally Native Proficiency”—is described “functionally equivalent to that of a highly articulate well-educated native speaker”. The average native speaker born in the U.S. might not even test to that level in English.

To enjoy your vacation abroad or communicate with your foreign in-laws, you can certainly get by at lower proficiency levels, short of a “native-like” level. Even serious, professional goals like negotiating with foreign colleagues can be achieved without passing as a native speaker. U.S. diplomats typically only train to an ILR 3 or 3+ level, the description of which indicates that the speaker still makes some errors.

Shawn Kobb, a U.S. diplomat who has served for more than a decade, explains that “American diplomats are not required to speak any languages other than English upon joining the service, we are required to become fluent in at least one foreign language within the first five years. Fluency in at least two foreign languages is required in order to reach the highest ranks and, in reality, most American diplomats speak three or more foreign languages with at least some proficiency.” All of which begind well after the supposed “cut-off age”.

Many language learners who begin later in life still reach native-like proficiency.

So, if native-like proficiency is your goal, are you out of luck? While the data collected in the MIT study shows a clear advantage for those who started learning from a very young age, thousands of the quiz takers who began after age 18 earned a score in the native-like range. In fact, Chacon points out that “the top quarter of learners from the over-20 group do just as well as the average of those who started before 10.”

When it comes to language learning as an adult, the only thing stopping you is, well, you. And perhaps misleading journalism that discourages you from trying in the first place.

At a time when America’s language deficit is being called a national emergency and the strategic need for languages is increasing in post-Brexit UK, it’s misleading and detrimental to advertise a “cut-off age” for language learning—particularly when the data cited draws no such conclusion.

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About the Author:Transparent Language

Transparent Language is a leading provider of best-practice language learning software for consumers, government agencies, educational institutions, and businesses. We want everyone to love learning language as much as we do, so we provide a large offering of free resources and social media communities to help you do just that!


Comments:

  1. Transparent Language:

    Hi Carl! The CL-150 is the professional version of Transparent Language Online, intended for our government, military, and other organizational learners. As an individual learner, you’ll find everything you need in Transparent Language Online. We’re glad to hear you’re not letting age stand in your way! 🙂

  2. Transparent Language:

    Hello again. None of those three are with us any more. It’s a freelance position, so writers come and go as their inspiration and schedules allow. Carol is the current blogger and is a Brazilian native. If you have any topic requests, leave a comment and let her know. 🙂

    • Transparent Language:

      @Transparent Language Tristian and Andre, would you like me to send an email to you both connecting you by email? It’s probably more conducive to a conversation and language exchange than this comment section allows. I have both your emails (they are hidden from the public) and am happy to connect you two privately.

  3. Transparent Language:

    Hi Sharon,
    I’ve sent an email to our Support team letting them know about your issue. They’ll be able to extend your trial so you don’t miss any days because of this! They should be contacting you within 24 hours at the email you used to leave this comment.

  4. Sue:

    That IS really encouraging. I didn’t start learning Russian until about age 23 years. I achieved pretty good proficiency after living in Moscow for 5 months. Following that, it was always difficult to follow a conversation with several contributors or to talk on the phone. But I was comfortable putting ideas together the best I could and, although sometimes it was funny, people understood me.

  5. Doug Auwarter:

    I didn’t start studying Portuguese until I was 40 years old. I was highly motivated to learn and worked very hard. Today, I’m happy to be pretty fluent and able to hold my own in a conversation, as well as do research in the language (I’m a musician). Do I speak as a native, definitely not, but by persevering, I learned and it has enriched my life greatly. There certainly is no cut-off date for learning a language!

  6. Barbara:

    I moved to the Netherlands to marry my Dutch beau at age 60 and of course, had to go back to school to learn Dutch. The Dutch were not tolerant of my slow pace, but I managed t understand the language. We now live in California but speak a lot of Dutch in the home. Never too old…I am now 80.


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