Massive Study from MIT About Second Language Acquisition Defines Critical Period

This study, from MIT has gotten a great deal of attention in the past week and a half. It suggests that there is a critical period for people to start learning a second language. Based on data from close to 700,000 English speakers, the study showed that people need to start leaning the language before age 10 to achieve native-like proficiency. This study spawned lots of articles across the web. Some of those articles took a optimistic approach to the results and some felt the study indicated that language learning is nearly impossible past a certain age.

The more optimistic headlines include these:

Ability to Learn Languages Stays Strong Until Late Teens, Study Finds (Education Week)

The Window for Learning a Language May Stay Open Surprisingly Long (Sciencenews.org)

The more pessimistic headlines include these:

To Master a Language, Start it Early (The Economist)

Want to Learn a New Language Fluently? Start Before Age 10, Study Finds (The Telegraph)

Why it is Hard to Learn Another Language After Childhood (Time)

The Difference Between Fluent and Native-Like

While this study looked at the ability of people to learn English at different stages of life, there are implications for all language learning. Should students give up on learning Mandarin Chinese if they are older than age ten? Is there reason for this pessimism?

People can learn a second (or third) language at any age. A great response to the gloomier headlines is here. The author of this response, linguistics professor Monika Schmid, points out that the MIT study is about achieving native-like ability in a second language. The study never even mentions fluency. There are many, many people in the world who speak a second language fluently, but without a native-like ability. As I write this, I am sitting across the table from my husband. English is his second language. He teaches in English. He writes articles in English. Additionally, he uses English in meetings. No native English speaker, after having a conversation with his in English, would assume he grew up in America. And yet he has the high degree of fluency that is necessary for the life he leads in this country.

Adult Students Should Not Give Up on their Language Goals

The pessimistic headlines about language learning ability, and more importantly the articles, miss a key point. Native-like ability is not the same as fluency. So what if a person does not “pass” as a native-speaker? As long as a person achieves the fluency necessary to do what she wants to do, that is enough. Some students might want to learn Mandarin Chinese in order to travel. Some students may want to learn Mandarin Chinese for business. Still others may want to bond with family members. All of these students may require different levels of language ability (and literacy). They do not need to seem native-like. Their goals are absolutely achievable.

It is far from impossible to learn a second language past the age of ten. Anyone can do it. The MIT study did not cover language teaching methods at all. With the right input (from a teacher), any student can learn a new language. Students can also learn at any age. They might not achieve native-like ability, but who cares? The goal should be a desired level of fluency, not anything else.

If you are any age, and wish to learn Mandarin Chinese, use the contact form to get in touch.

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You Can Learn Mandarin Chinese At Any Age

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