Why Can’t Adults Learn Languages Like Children?

If learning a language is so easy for young
children, why is it so difficult when you’re older? We have entire industries devoted to helping
adults learn languages “the easy way”. I mean, never mind there isn’t an “easy”
way for adults to learn language, and never mind that different people learn in very different
ways, there are a hundred companies that’ll happily take your money. I’ve tried a couple.
They didn’t work all that well, and my French is just as stumbling as it was when I tried
to learn it in school — probably worse, given that I’ve forgotten half of what I had to
learn then. But young children just learn languages automatically,
don’t they? Surround them with language speakers, and they’ll just pick it up easily. Well, first of all: easily? I mean, a baby
spends about a whole year with nothing but input before it even starts producing any
sort of coherent sound, while an adult can concentrate for an hour or so and get a few
basic sentences memorised. And that baby’s learning constantly, almost every minute it’s
awake. Adults have a heck of a lot of other things to do, including communicating and
thinking in the languages we already know. There is something called the “critical
period hypothesis”. The idea is that for the first couple of years of life, the brain
is particularly good at picking up languages. Noam Chomsky proposed a “language acquisition
device” in the brain that switched off as you got older. Now, that hypothesis is well-known
enough to be taken as fact by the public at large, but linguists are still debating it.
Chomsky moved away from his language acquisition device, towards the idea that we steadily
narrow down the parameters of the language we’re taught from a long, long list of possibilities.
And that theory is still getting a lot of criticism. In fact, if you ask the big question: “how
do children acquire language”, then the answer is: nobody really knows, but some linguists
have really strong opinions on it. We know that language must be partly based
on genetics, and partly based on surroundings. No matter how much you talk to a gorilla,
it’s never going to be able to understand more than a few words — and there are serious
questions about whether any of the great apes have actually managed that. Even the smartest
animal, with the best tutor, will never be a conversation partner. So there must be something
fundamentally human about language. But at the same time: there’s nothing genetic
about which language you can speak. If I’d been adopted at birth by French-speaking parents,
I would be speaking and thinking in French: there’s no gene for the English language. There is one thing that’s clear, though.
We’re born with the potential to speak any human language. But after a while, surrounded
by just a few languages, or maybe just one, we work out what we need to listen for — and
we stop listening for anything else. Many languages on the Indian subcontinent
have a distinction between p and p(h). So, pa would be different from p(h)a. Hear the
difference? The second one is aspirated, there’s a bit more air coming out my mouth. Pa versus
P(h)a. If you don’t speak one of those languages: do you reckon you could hear a subtle difference
like, when there’s someone speaking at full speed? Do you reckon you could produce that
difference, reliably, without thinking about it? Millions of people, billions of people,
can and do, and they learned it automatically: but try and pick that up as an adult, and
it’s going to take you a long, long time. It’s called categorical perception: our
brain takes this strange input, these electrical signals based on changes in air pressure,
and we look for particular categories within them. And once we’ve filed something into
a category, the other details don’t matter. But it’s not all over if your brain is too
set in its ways, like mine is. Adults are really quite good at learning vocabulary,
the same way we’re good at memorising anything else. Most of the language courses aimed at
adults emphasise that: they use flashcards and translation exercises, and don’t worry
too much about getting production perfect. You may never sound, or even think, like a
native speaker, but that doesn’t mean you can’t at least make yourself understood. [Translating these subtitles? Add your name here!]

100 Replies to “Why Can’t Adults Learn Languages Like Children?

  1. I've been saying basically this for years, that children do not learn language easier than adults; it takes children many years to get it right!

  2. Because we're afraid, we're not comfortable when treated as children, and people don't want to waste their time and effort on teaching strangers in this way (so called language parenting). We have the ability to, though, and it works miraculously, just gotta convince someone to help you with it.

  3. I think language has a lot more to do with immersing yourself in the native culture than it does sitting down and trying to learn it at a theoretical level. Language isnt naturally acquired through a classroom or book. I believe whole heartedly that the need to socially survive in a foreign speaking community has major implications on your language learning process.

    Maybe we're just going about learning language the wrong way as adults. I have no experience beyond that, besides being trilingual. This is just my thoughts and opinions. No facts. Hope this gives another angle for people to think about when discussing this topic.

  4. Hello, I made my studies in language department.

    I do not think children have better capacities, many students from foreign countries spoke french with 0 accent.

    Nevertheless they have better teaching :

    1 A kid speaks a lot because social links are easier, school, parents etc… An adult speaks less because they have less contacts because of their jobs/works.

    2 When a kid is pronuncing something badly, you'll make them repeat until they say it correctly.

    3 foreign students speak usually perfectly the language of the University in which they come in. (At least they poke perfectly french where I was) Why ? Because they're studying languages, and they usually pay native speaker to correct their accent. (Like 10 $ for one hour of "accent correction class".)

  5. I think 2 reasons:
    1) Adults are burdened with reading and writing a language. Children aren't.
    2) Adults already have a fully formed language in their heads that they spent years using. It's hard to displace that with a new language.
    3) Children are put in fully immersive environments and adults often aren't when they go to a new country.

  6. Idk why ppl aasume u have to be a kid to learn a language. I started learn spanish round 23/24 and now im 31 speaking it fluently living in mexico. Plus im almost fluent in french and now learning italian. You arent too old to learn anything

  7. I think adults can learn more than children, look at me for example when I was a kid my parents taught me French throughout my childhood but when I grew up I couldn't remember any of it, after a while in my teenage years I started learning English by myself and it's working well

  8. . As a non native speaker it's difficult to understand English with two reasons one is familiarity with use sentence and two is usage of the language in daily routine .

  9. As an 18-year-old who's tried to start learning Hindi, I can confirm that picking up the concept of aspirated consonants (as well as retroflex ones) is a real challenge. Like, for real, they have 4 different T sounds, as well as 4 D sounds.

  10. because there are better ways to learn languages for adults, and it's stupid for adults learning languages the way children do.

  11. Every time I look at these videos I go "whou, wouldn't it be amazing to speak and think in multiple languages"

    Then I remember that I am fluent in multiple languages because this video is in English and I'm a native Finnish speaker

  12. My husband and I speak a lot in English on a daily basis.

    We're both native finnish speakers and live in a finnish speaking area.

  13. I remember to be abble to understand pingu very well as a child. Perfectly understandable. And as a adult was litte bit surprising. But, I think if one has this very memory, it can delves to find what happened since and then

  14. That example you gave about the subtle difference between p and ph in Hindi is extremely well thought out. Non-native speakers can think of the ph sound as the f sound pronounced with the lips instead of the teeth. So a hindi word for flower is phool(फ़ूल) instead of fool(फूल).

  15. Currently trying to learn my fifth language. You wonder why? Well, so I can brag about being able to speak 5 languages, ain't it obvious?

  16. I am workijg on myself so at the age of 14 i know latvian (native language) english, russian and im learning french now 😃

  17. I think immersion is one of the most important factor too.. im a bilingual, and english is my second language. Ive learnt english since kindergarten but im really bad at it because i rarely interact with people using english, but when i was abt 16-17years i had a friend who constantly speak english with me and from that point onwards my english started to improve a lot and i can speak more fluently

  18. 1:50 There is one particular gorilla named Koko who can understand a lot of sigh language and reply. It's not vocal, but it's a language nevertheless.

  19. Because they know no good method.
    Me method, many small time, make big time.
    When they do me method, they see. They see.

  20. I want to create an experiment where a child is surrounded with many languages from a young age that all have different phonetics . My hypothesis is the child would be able to speak all the languages they were surrounded with and would have an easier time learning language.

  21. Immersion is the key. Anyone can learn material so they can spit it back onto a test. Even translation exercises aren’t teaching you more than how to think in your own language before figuring it out in another. Information regurgitation and translation are different skills than learning to communicate. For that you need immersion. Babies learn because the need to to get what they want. That, I believe, is why anyone learns any language; necessity. Drop an English-speaking person in a remote part of China where no one speaks English and I guarantee you that person will learn how to ask for food and water in the local Chinese dialect.

  22. I went from being a native English speaker to learning Japanese. Still learning it because I only started a couple months ago and it's been super difficult but super fun

  23. They can. An adult can become fluent in a foreign language, given the time and practice. Unless you live under the rock, this is observable fact

  24. 3:00 long, long time? Not as long as it took them. 2 or 3 years before a baby can produce these sounds reliably without them blending occasionally. I bet you that on the Indian subcontinent some of the most common speech impediments are related to these sounds that our languages don't differentiate.

  25. So im romanian and i live in spain and i also speak english, the language i speak the most is spanish, my native language is romanian but i think in english, i sound like a native both irl and in my head i dont know why

  26. In some language they don't say left or right, but the wind direction instead, so they have great orientation skills.

  27. I think the reason is obvious. Time. Children have a lot of time to absorb information and they don’t have to worry about anything.

  28. I didn't even watch this video , but let me explain in 1 word :

    Neuroplasticity , more you grow lesser your brain is capable of learning new things

  29. I have always wondered why I never was able to learn how to speak French. I learned English within a year, and during that same year I put just as much work and effort into learning French. I can speak English perfectly fine now, but my French is still below that of your average high schooler.

  30. Hmmmmm….. I can now easily learn language better than I did as a child. Am I the only one? Its just that maybe people have lost the touch of learning and children learn a lot everyday. Those people who are creeped into their phones won't learn anything but those who are avid readers can learn any language easily.

  31. Easiest way to learn a language? Social media. All you need to do is surround yourself with people who speak that language and Google any words you don't understand. Boom. You just learned Spanish.

  32. I've been to Ireland for a couple of weeks to practice the language living in a Irish family and I remember that one of the most embarassing conversations was when the mother of the family told me her daughter was having a couple of teeth removed and I heard "tit" and was thinking of a breast surgery.

    Practicing is very important indeed heh.

  33. I once heard (yes I know, great source ;)) that the reason "all [ethnic group]s look alike" is that within a given ethnicity, there are a couple aspects of one's face that are most useful to distinguish them from others of that ethnicity, so our brain is trained to specifically seek those out. When confronted with a room full of , say, chinese people and asked to put names to faces afterwards, white people will have a hard time doing so, because the nuances that distinguish these faces best are not the same ones this person's brain has been looking for.
    And just like the categorization of sounds, this is something an adult can still learn. Try the above test with someone who has worked 20 years in China 😉

  34. What a bunch of crap, all you need is exposure, lots of it, how are you supposed to learn a language if you don't heart it at least 6 hours a day?

  35. So what you're talking about is accents. Language is one thing, but recreating exact sounds is something else entirely.

  36. Vocabulary are easy. The hard one from learning other language is the grammar. Like how to put words together into a correct sentences.
    I learned Korean autodidact but i keep struggling to make sentences because for me Koreans just throw words there and there randomly and voila, a sentence.
    I'm not even fluent in English but I'm learning Korean from English videos and articles because the one that is in my native language doesn't help at all. It's just basic words and i already know the words, i need the way to make them into sentences.

  37. Children have a different experience to adults. Children are thrown into playgroups etc and the other children will speak to them in their native language. They'll act differently to them than adults. Adults don't get such an experience. If you're in a foreign country adults aren't going to talk to you like children would. They'll realise you don't speak their language and politely stay out your way. Or for English speakers they'll want to practice their English. They're not going to speak to you as that would seem weird unlike with children.

  38. Expats often hang around in groups, often dominating entire districts.
    All the times I've immersed myself in another country, hanging around only with locals, I've picked up enough of that language to get by.
    When you return to the expat community they say "I wish I could pick up languages like you", as they order their food in English to eat with their English speaking friends, browsing the English newspaper with English TV in the background.

  39. I stop the video to read the texts such as @ 1:04. But the YouTube video progress bar is striking right through them.
    Any idea how to stop video hiding the overlay? Or read those texts?
    This is one of a few videos where it would be very handy.

  40. The aspiration demonstration wasn't really correct. Both examples you gave were aspirated. If there is a puff of air coming out of the "p" sound, it is aspirated. The non-aspirated version is usually quite difficult for English speakers.

  41. Language training, fast.
    Extremely easy.

    After birthing a baby you should immediately start talking a lot of english to it until the newborn can understand and even repeat some of the things you taught it. Then you start introducing mandarin and spanish to it. Now your 3year-old child is proficient in english and effortlessly starts building a bigger vocabulary when living in an english-speaking country. Meanwhile will pick up some spanish from you, its parents and the latino community. And now learning mandarin from its language trainer from china, the child shall quickly develop a feel for all three languages.
    If you have done your job well, your child will be understood throughout the world by age 6.

  42. Simple, a child has nothing to compare the language it hears to another language, because it doesn't know any. Everything that goes in will be taken as learning material.
    We mostly learn another language by translating it to our mother language and try to make a sense of it while still thinking in our language.
    If you wire your brain to stop translating what it hears then you could learn like a baby. Yes you take longer for simple words and sentences but you would pronounce it better and you would understand it better as soon as you start to think in the language you want to learn.

  43. Sure an adult can learn a few words easly, but they have something to come from, a baby doesn't have a primary language to rely on

  44. I have an obsession right now with learning French as well as possible. I'm doing everything in my power to make it last.
    And it's not just French. I just love language in general. I'm actually working on creating one of my own.

  45. i am only person on this planet can speak more than 300 languages, and i want to teach people and only adults to learn a language fast,yet i am too busi for interstellar language and technology exxploring.

  46. Actually I have found that the older you get it becomes VERY hard to learn anything new. I would LOVE to speak french….but I have tried and tried and nothing.

  47. The video title seems super wrong, for me "the adult way of learning" does not work at all, but learning like a kid works much better. Unfortunately, I cannot learn 24/7 with dedicated mom/teacher, but there are few shortcuts for an adult:)

  48. I think children learns language easier because of their mother and father, because of their family. Mainly because of their MOTHER. Adults don't have a mother to taught another language all day.

  49. Humans evolved some incredible features that we take so normally that we simply can’t
    understand why animals are not able to acquire them (and that’s why most
    science fiction movies and TV shows are so wrong regarding the hypothetical
    evolution of intelligent animals like the Planet of the Apes).

    Humans are able to have abstract thinking; humans are able to understand a NEGATIVE concept as if it were a positive existing one, that is, if you were to press an animal
    into understanding what objects are inside a room, the most it could do is to
    conceptualize each and every object but it would never be able to express “there
    is NO ball in the room”; humans can make questions (depending on the abstract
    negative, too); humans are able to group concepts into categories (“objects
    that are like this and that are called BALLS, objects that behave like this are
    called X, etc.”) what saver HUGE amount of space into the brain (you do not
    have to “know” every object in existence, only its group of reference; BALLS
    bounce on the ground etc.).

    Each of these apparently obvious things supposed a HUGE jump in evolutionary terms and they weren’t neither sudden, nor obvious and of course not unavoidable (there are still questions about the ability of Neanderthals to produce actual art, etc.).

    Music and songs evolved with humans as a way to facilitate the union between sounds and emotions (and even produce certain states beyond normal consciousness, but that’s another topic), that’s why animals won’t understand music as we do, they may have their own use but in the way it helps us connect with complex feelings and communication.

  50. to most people languages are only the means not the end thus, they don't study them with that intent.

  51. If on a weekly basis to be reasonable, you can't practice your listening, speaking, reading, writing (handwriting, sending emails, etc) in a foreign language, then you can't as much as your learning environment was made for you as an English-speaking person when you were born. The way to learn and pick up is to insert little by little foreign-speaking sources into your learning environment i.e. friends to talk to, to send emails to, books to study what you want to say and what topics you can talk about, do you watch foreign-speaking videos, listen to radio ? etc. You can't really expect someone to be bilingual when you don't live abroad, and even that, it doesn't always work…e.g. most of the foreigners living in China still don't speak Chinese after years being there. It all depends on your exposure to your target foreign language. Te lo puedo explicar también en español si quieres. Je peux te l'expliquer en français si tu veux. 我也可以用中文给你解释 🙂

  52. This will probably get buried. But I am an English kindergarten teacher in Japan. And from my experience at the age of 5 (possible 4 for girls) and up children begin to recognize the difference in language a little. Anything below that age is all sound and they just repeat the sound.

  53. It's just practice and having someone to correct you.

    Children have their parents who are repeating words over and over again until they get it.
    Alternatively, children tend to go to school where they are surrounded by the foreign language and they need to develop speaking and writing skills which improve gradually each year of course

  54. I spent a lot of my life speaking Spanish, and now I mostly only speak English, however, it's almost imposible for me to pronounce the letter "z" differently from "s"

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