The study, published in the journal Cognition, found that it’s “nearly impossible” for language learners to reach native-level fluency if they start learning a second tongue after age 10. But that’s not because language skills start to go downhill. “It turns out you’re still learning fast,” says study co-author Joshua Hartshorne, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston College. “It’s just that you run out of time, because your ability to learn starts dropping at around 17 or 18 years old.” People who start a few years after age 10 may still become quite good at a language, the authors say, but they are unlikely to become fluent.
Kids may be better than adults at learning new languages for many reasons. Children’s brains are more plastic than those of adults, meaning they’re better able to adapt and respond to new information. “All learning involves the brain changing,” Hartshorne says, “and children’s brains seem to be a lot more adept at changing.” Kids may also be more willing to try new things (and to potentially look foolish in the process) than adults are. Their comparatively new grasp on their native tongue may also be advantageous. Unlike adults, who tend to default to the rules and patterns of their first language, kids may be able to approach aâ€‹ new one with a blank slate.
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