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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. Carl Enoch Widger:

    Good Morning Transparent!

    I’m not certain what CL-150 is, to be honest with you. But I do know what the title of your post means; and I can assure you, that my age has no limitations for myself to learn. However, I have found it amazingly odd, that we as a people, have become more fluent in the use of acronyms. Not just for texting; but in our normal, day-to-day speech. How are we ever going to learn the truest forms of our roots? OMG, that’s why we have “Transparent Language”! People, stop acting young, and be young. The only limitations on age, for learnig to speak a language, is that which you place on yourselves. I encourage you to walk, before trying to run. Learn a language with time proven roots. Don’t be in such a hurry, that you use letters without feelings, as the key purpose of communications.

    Thank you Transparent Language, for taking the weight of the world’s communication gap, and pulling it together, so all can learn to connect, using whole words with feeling.

    Your deadicated fan of “Word Purpose”!
    Mr. Carl Enoch Widger👍

    • Transparent Language:

      @Carl Enoch Widger 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! 🙂

      • Tristian Wilson:

        @Transparent Language Do you still have available the conversation-partners/Brazilian-chat-pal as originally advertised by Transparent Language in technology on September 04,2007 in the brazilian blog?

        • Transparent Language:

          @Tristian Wilson Unfortunately we don’t have any kind of chat or conversations partners. We do have live instructors with whom you can sign up for private or group lessons. But if you’re looking for a dedicated, long-term conversation partner, you may be better off doing so privately among each other.

  2. Tristian Wilson:

    Hello,Transparent Language

  3. Tristian Wilson:

    Do you still have available the conversation partners for Brazilians as posted on September 04,2007 by Transparent Language in Technology.
    It stated”conversation partners,Brazilian chat-pal for Skype,MSN,Yahoo,AIM.Let me know as soon as possible.
    It was posted in the Brazilian blog.

    • Carl Enoch Widger:

      @Tristian Wilson Tristian Wilson;

      Thank you for your comment, to my comment, to the Blog posting “The Cost Of Learning A Language! I am likewise, interested in your comment about “A Communication Partner”, as I am interested in the Brazilian Language, to add to my resume´. I know you’re serving in the Navy, and that will be first. Likewise, I have other things that occupy my time. However, I will give it my honest-best, if you would like to become “Communication Partners”?

      If there is no offering to do so, in the Transparent Language platform anymore. I am willing to provide you with my email address, for further dicision making on our own!

      Thank you again, Nikkei
      Respectfully, Carl Enoch Widger

      • Tristian Wilson:

        @Carl Enoch Widger Hello Sr.Carl,
        The blog is a perfect space for us to ask and answer,give and receive feedback,or even just to discuss the world.
        We can also use our personal email.My social media is so limited due to the restrictions of this carrier during operations.I’ve also beem looking for help in that regard.How often will you be available to check comments on this and the Brazilian blog?
        Hopefully,Transparent language in technology?Still has the chat-partners available too.TTYL.

      • Tristian Wilson:

        • Carl Enoch Widger:

          @Tristian Wilson Bom dia. Como você está? Me desculpe, eu nao escrevo bem em português. E só sei algumas palavras em portugués, ainda. Isso está certo? Já em Inglês. (Good morning. How are you? I’m sorry, I do not write portuguese well and I nly speak a lettle portuguese, yet. Is this correct? Now in English.)
          ____________________________________________

          To answer your questions: I get online once a day for about four(4) hours, at least, when possible. Good news! I thing you’re becoming a “Brazilian Idol” here a new party:

          Andre:
          @Transparent Language Tristian hello! I am new and I am willing to learn new things and write back and forth if yo would like to I am able to get on here everyday.

          Ask and ye shall receive😃

          BTW (by the way) what time differences do we have? Im in the State of Michigan, USA (eastern daylight savings time)? And you are in the World (approximation)? Anywho, as they say in the south. It’s a beauty of a day. 78° for a high, no real winds, slight breeze. I’m loviń it! I’m tryi.g to get my sister, niece, and my son, to join the Transparent trending. Communications is the key to life.

          Good Day My Friend,
          Top of the morning
          Carl Enoch Widger

  4. Tristian Wilson:

    OLÀ,TRANSPARENT
    Are Polyana,Adir and Rachel still active bloggers with your company?They all blogged in the Portuguese blog.

    • Transparent Language:

      @Tristian Wilson 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. 🙂

      • Andre:

        @Transparent Language Tristian hello! I am new and I am willing to learn new things and write back and forth if yo would like to I am able to get on here everyday.

        • Tristian Wilson:

          @Andre Sorry Andre,
          I just saw your post.Our friend Carl let me know about your post.Please,visit our brazilian blog.Also,visit the following:
          http://www.orkut.com
          http://www.brazilink.org
          http://www.verdeamarelo.com
          Tell everyone to visit our brazilian blog.Post us on you facebook and other social media.Can’t wait to hear from you.

        • Tristian Wilson:

          @Andre Sorry,for the delay.I had trouble posting again.
          How are you Andre?I look forward to hearing from you.

        • Tristian Wilson:

          @Andre Olà,Andre,
          Ever visted the following sites?
          Orkut.com
          Brazilink.org
          Verdeamarelo.com
          If not,go check them out.Invite everyone to the brazilian blog.Tell everyone that I said hello.

          • Andre:

            @Tristian Wilson Hello Tristian how are you today? Myself I am good I will look at those blogs thank you it was nicing hearing from you look forward to hearing from you soon

          • Transparent Language:

            @Andre 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.

  5. benito reyes:

    Boa tarde

  6. Sharon Kay Anderson:

    Dear Transparent Languaue,

    I sincerely hope that this isn’t a sign of being to old to learn a language. But somehow, I have forgotten my password, or Activation Code. I am unable to get to the start- up of my 14-day free trial, and had to resort to this, through a friend, to hopefully resolve the issue! Can you sent me my password, or activation code to my email? Or at least restart (refresh) my account, so I can reinitiate it, as if I had never signed up before? Anxious to get started.

    Thank you, Sincerely!
    Respectfully Requested,
    Sharon Kay Anderson

    • Transparent Language:

      @Sharon Kay Anderson 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.

  7. Justin wilson:

    I would truly like to learn a different language fluently every year any suggestions

    • Tristian Wilson:

      @Justin wilson The ability to learn a different language every year would probably require a sort of total immersion therapy into the language.The problem with that is that you might lose prior knowledge of a learned language by not using it.You may try to transition from language to another using that learned language as a base.I was trying to learn Italian from an english base,I was not making enough progress.So,I changed the base to my native portuguese,which I haven’t spoken in ten years in a full conversation,yet, the progress that I’ve made is staggering compared to my studies in English.I’ve had great help to from Transparent employees and bloggers.It will take effort.You can do it.

  8. Tristian Wilson:

    Hey Andre,
    How are you?Sorry to hear about your difficulties joining the brazilian blog.Have you tried the following?
    http:www.transparent/blob/portuguese
    If you’re able to get on the site but you’re not able to post,It may be that you need to get your first comment approved by Carol who actually runs the blog and does a great job too.She approves everyone before they can actually post to prevent SPAM and other stuff.
    If need be,try leaving a comment for Transparent language.They are great at addressing our needs.They’ve helped me many many times.Including with a similar issue as yours.
    I hope this helps.

  9. Andre:

    Carol at transparent language can you help me out to get on some of these other sites that Tristian spoke about? Thank you for your help

    • Carl Enoch Widger:

      @Andre Andre,
      The same as you initiated the Transparent Language, login. When you get to the blog, scroll up the page, and you’ll see every country represented there on the right!
      Go to the bottom, and click on the Brazilian Portuguese Blog. Scroll down to the second post, click continue reading, scroll down to read blog, and comments.

      Good Luck My Friend,
      Carlt

  10. Tristian Wilson:

    I believe Carl is from Michigan.I currently live in Memphis,TN.I’m in the Navy and since our gov uses this program,I decided tobtake full advantage of it.You can check me out on FACEBOOK,ORKUT,INSTAGRAM,YOUTUBE.I put alot of videos on line for my kids and stuff.I’m also on Trikster(gaming site).

  11. Tristian Wilson:

    Does anyone have bilingual children?


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