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The ability to achieve native-like language proficiency cannot be exclusively attributed to age as other factors, such as cognitive, social and emotional aspects, are important.

Why younger is not always better when it comes to learning English

This article is part of a series to commemorate Indonesian National Education Day on May 2.

Many laypeople think children have an innate ability to soak up a new language like a thirsty little sponge and that neither teenagers nor adults can keep pace with them. They believe this natural capacity for acquiring multiple languages will decline with age.

This belief encourages some researchers to propose a time limit to learn a new language. They argue that children are more adept at language acquisition due to the plasticity of their brains, which will have become immutable at the onset of puberty.

Recent empirical studies, however, have provided evidence against the idea of an upper age limit to learning a new language.

More researchers now agree that the ability to achieve high or even native-like proficiency cannot be exclusively attributed to age and is affected by other factors, such as cognitive, social and emotional aspects.

Old and young have the same learning capacity

The idea that there is a critical period to learn a language is based on the observation that children and adults have different brain structures.

Children under the age of 9 or 13 are believed to have a brain organisation capable of learning more than one language without any confusion.

After this period, they will find it difficult, if not impossible, to reach native-like proficiency in a language because their brains will have become completely lateralised.

The lateralised brain refers to the condition where the language functions have been completely localised to one side of the brain, usually the left hemisphere. As a result, language learning becomes more conscious and challenging.

That conclusion has become common knowledge despite its implausibility, as it relies on a direct relationship between the patterns of brain activation and the level of language proficiency.

Even assuming such close linkage does occur, holding fast to this idea has become much harder as ample evidence is now at odds with it.

A recent study found much of the brain plasticity that exists in childhood is still preserved in adulthood. This means older learners are also capable of being highly proficient – younger is not always better.

Late starters can catch up with early starters

When it comes to attaining proficiency, much research has also provided evidence against the notion that late starters will always lag behind early beginners.

For instance, Carmen Muñoz, an English linguistics and applied linguistics professor at the University of Barcelona, Spain, and her research team found early starters do not outperform late starters when both groups receive the same amount of language instruction. They drew this conclusion from data gathered through their long-term research project about the development of English proficiency in learners aged 8, 11, 14 and over 18 in Barcelona.

In a similar study, an expert in psycholinguistics and language acquisition from Austria, Simone E. Pfenninger, and his colleague, David Singleton, arrived at the same conclusion.

They analysed data from 200 English learners in different age groups between 2009 and 2015 in Switzerland. They concluded late beginners can quickly catch up with the level of proficiency attained by the early starters. This research further indicates that the belief about the benefits of learning English early does not hold up.

Furthermore, some studies have provided evidence that late second-language learners can reach native-like levels of proficiency.

Many who started to learn English after the age of 20 were reported to have become native-like speakers.

All of this evidence challenges the assumption that learning English early can give competitive advantages.

Factors other than age affect children’s proficiency

Consensus is growing among researchers that children’s second-language development depends on the interactions between cognitive, social and emotional factors.

These factors include the amount of opportunities to learn English, motivation, aptitude, identity and willingness to communicate.

Some of these factors can be more prominent than the others, depending on the learners’ individual differences and socio-cultural contexts.

For instance, those who are immersed in English-speaking countries are more likely to be fluent in English. This is because they have more opportunities to receive direct inputs from target-language speakers.

Another example relates to young learners’ identities and family backgrounds.

Early starters coming from wealthy families are likely to attain better outcomes than those from a poor background. The former usually have adequate teaching inputs along with much wider opportunities to practise their English through daily communication with parents, private tutors and other people with high levels of English proficiency in their immediate environment.

This extreme variability in early starters’ learning outcomes again indicates that younger is not always better.

Second-language learners from different age groups seem to have the same prospects of becoming highly proficient speakers as long as they are placed in a supportive environment.

Generalisations about age factors in language learning are, therefore, baseless. Outcomes are dependent on the complex relationships among various variables.

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