A commonly held view about L2 learning is the younger the better. However, the evidence shows that while younger learners achieve better phonology than older learners, older learners achieve better syntax.
The Critical Period Hypothesis
Certainly when learning an L1, there is a critical period for learning the language, after which proficiency will not happen. This may be linked to innate ability (see Universal Grammar), which some say is not accessible after a certain age (some say at puberty, some say around 3 to 5 years of age).
In any case, older learners may depend more on cognitive skills rather than innate ability, so L2 learning may be more like the learning of a skill rather than the learning of the L1. It has been argued, in fact, that adult analytical, abstract thinking might get in the way of natural language acquisition.
And older learners often learn a language in an entirely different environment than very young children learning their L1. Older learners have different:
- cognitive skills
- learning environment (e.g. school immersion)
- prior learning experience
Older learners have also:
- developed metalinguistic knowledge
- have developed memorisation strategies and problem solving skills
Patkowski (1980) found that students who had begun to learn English before the age of 15 had better English than those who had started learning after the age of 15, given the same instruction time. In other words, instruction time did not relate to language proficiency, but age did.
Patkowski (1980), The sensitive period for the acquisition of syntax in a second language. Language Learning 30(2): 449-472.
However, this study’s findings and similar may just mean learning English in an immersion environment is better…and adults rarely learn an L2 in an immersion environment as they are able to manipulate their social setting (for example by socialising with people from their same language group).
There is some evidence that older learners appear to learn faster in the early stages of learning an L2. Catherine Snow and Hoefnagel-Hohle found that after 6 months of their arrival in Holland, adults were ahead of adolescents in every measurement except pronunciation; adolescents were ahead of children. However, by the end of one year, children were overtaking adults in all areas except vocabulary. All groups were being taught in similar ways.
Snow and Hoefnagel-Hohle, The critical period for language acquisition. Child Development 49(4):1114-1128.
Snow and Hoefnagel-Hohle (1977), Age difference and the pronunciation of foreign sounds. Language and Speech 20:357-365
However, other studies have shown that younger learners do better than adults.
So is younger better for learning an L2?
Maybe not. Adults may just be in a poorer language learning environment – they don’t get the same quantity and quality of input as children in school and at play. And adult learners may not actually need high levels of proficiency: conversational proficiency may be enough for adults, while younger learners will need English for academic purposes. In other words, what is important is not age, but interaction, purpose and motivation.
It has also been suggested that the reason why adolescents and adults rarely acquire native-like pronunciation is because they don’t want to! Older learners may wish to retain an accent in order to retain their cultural identity as a non-native speaker.
It is possible that the optimum age for learning an L2 is between 8 and 12.