Fluency in Adults: Academic Studies That May Surprise You

It’s a commonly-accepted fact that children are “like sponges”, and if they start to learn a language before the age of 10, they’re speaking fluently in no time.

As an adult though, our brains are seemingly more hard-wired, and the ship has basically sailed on becoming fluent in a new language. This is such a prevalent sentiment that it’s hardly ever challenged.

But when it comes to cold, hard science, you might be surprised about the potential adults have to reach fluency in a new language. Here is a breakdown of some important studies that will challenge what you think you know about adult language-learning.

1. Adult language-learners can achieve native levels of fluency.

It’s a common misconception that if you learn a language after the age of 15, you might learn a lot, but you’ll never achieve native levels of fluency. However, as far back as the 1990s, academics were looking into this phenomenon and testing it. One study compared three performance groups (near-native speakers of English, non-native speakers, and a control group). They concluded that there were no differences between the near-native group and the native speakers on all tasks. Therefore, native-like competence in a second-language is achievable, even by older learners.

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2. Adult language-learners are often perceived as less fluent learners due to circumstantial factors.

A group at MIT recently published a paper on the topic of second-language acquisition in adults. They did conclude that learning before the age of 18 gives one a higher likelihood of native-like mastery of grammar. However, they also noted that learning differences in age may not be due to some “magic change in brain plasticity”, but instead to the fact that adults don’t have as much time as children to be immersed in the language. Therefore, adults might become fluent at a slower pace, and reaching native-level mastery would provide little additional advantage. It’s not that they’re not capable. It’s just that they lack the same opportunity.

3. Adult language-learners have several advantages over young learners.

Adult language-learners can control their environment. They don’t need to follow a specific lesson-plan if it doesn’t work for them. If flashcards are best, they can use flashcards. If videos and repetition work for them, they can pursue that. Adults have the flexibility to learn either inside a classroom or outside of one. What’s more, adult learners can immediately apply what they’ve learned to their environment. Confronted with immediate, real-life applications for language, an adult learner might be more motivated to pursue continuing studies.

4. Adult language-learners receive health benefits from continued learning.

Just because it’s quicker for a child to learn a language, doesn’t mean you should scrap the idea of trying to learn. According to many academic studies, bilingualism has a positive impact on cognitive aging, including the later onset of dementia. And they’re not just referring to bilingualism that’s achieved in childhood. The positive effect extends to those who acquired their second language in adulthood. They found a better performance in bilinguals who used both languages actively. So that means if you’re thinking about signing up for that language class - you should go for it!

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5. There’s actually no conclusive proof that children learn languages better than adults.

Older learners of a second language rarely achieve the native-like fluency that children seem to display, according to the second-language acquisition theory. However, there are many exceptions to this rule. The window for learning a second language never completely closes, and you can’t definitively say that, given the right amount of time and optimal circumstances, any adult can’t become fluent to a native-like proficiency.

It’s encouraging that no matter your age, it’s not too late for you to achieve native-like fluency levels in the language of your choice. Why not get started today?