As any adult who has ever
attempted to learn a new language or skill can tell you, picking things up
later in life seems to be much more difficult than it was as a young child. No
matter how hard you study or how many times you try to master a new skill, the
older we get, the harder it becomes to pick things up. So, do children really
learn faster than adults or is there a trick to their ability to grasp language
concepts and skills at a more effective and efficient rate?
Language Learning Differences with Age
You may assume that a younger
brain is more conditioned to learn, much the same as a younger body is more
physically able to compete in triathlons than an older body. While you wouldn’t
exactly be wrong, the process of conditioning a brain for learning is much more
complex than simply age. It’s true that we do lose brain power as we age –
particularly reducing our ability to pick up new items and retain new information
– a fact which has a direct result on the rate in which we learn (obviously).
It’s not as simple as saying adults learn slower than children because of age,
however. Understanding how our minds change as we age is key to grasping why we
learn differently at various stages of our lives.
“As a person gets older, changes
occur in all parts of the body, including the brain. Certain parts of the brain
shrink, especially those important to learning and other complex mental
activities. In certain brain regions, communication between neurons (nerve
cells) can be reduced… These changes in the brain can affect mental function,
even in healthy older people,” explains the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services.
While our brains undergo degeneration
and deterioration naturally over the years, this still does not account for a
complete picture on learning differences over the ages. In other words, yes, aging
minds are physically less capable of learning as younger minds, but not to the
extent that thoroughly explains why children are able to pick up learning new
languages and subjects so much faster.
Unconscious Learning Vs Conscious Learning
Outside of the physical
difference of young minds versus older minds, there is another piece of the
puzzle that helps to explain how children
learn so much faster than adults: unconscious learning versus conscious learning.
In the simplest definition, unconscious learning is that which takes place
without even trying. Think of it as picking up a favorite line or phrase from a
movie you’ve seen a few times – you didn’t intend to learn it, you just picked
it up and remembered it while watching in enjoyment. Conscious learning then,
is the opposite. It’s the intentional act of trying to learn a new task or
subject. This form of learning is like trying to study for a test or memorize
new policies or manuals for work.
So, how does this translate to
language learning as children versus as adults? It’s really quite simple; young
children tend to learn unconsciously while adolescents and adults lean more on
conscious learning habits. Young children do not focus on studying specific
grammar books, diagrams, or memorization – in fact, they don’t focus on
learning at all. Instead, young children inadvertently pick up information like
a sponge by simply absorbing what they see around them. Adults, on the other
hand, spend hours poring over learning techniques and specifics, trying to
memorize new information and, subsequently, absorb less information in the process.
Environmental Advantages of Language Learning
“(Children) are literally built
to absorb information; they do this in an unconscious state of mind, like they’re
learning, and they don’t even know it. Adults and older children, on the other
hand, have to consciously learn the information which makes it harder because
when we learn that way, information sometimes gets lost or disassociated,”
explains the Instructor
Blog for Penn State’s SC200 Course.
In addition to picking up learning
cues unconsciously, the environments in which children learn are more conducive
to information absorption as well. As children, we are encouraged and praised for
the very concept of learning despite not picking up proper grammar cues or
techniques. Children are met with smiles, accolades and support when they are
able to communicate the basics of a new concept or language because they are
not expected to learn all of the details all at once. This allows them to grow
by picking up specifics a little at a time without fear of failure or sounding
unintelligent if they don’t get something 100% correct.
On the flip side, older children
and adults are often faced with (sometimes paralyzing) fear over sounding like
anything less than a native speaker on their topic of study. In other words,
adults have a fear of failing or making mistakes and being criticized for said
mistakes which can (and does) inhibit the ability to fully absorb and learn
through their environments.
Immersion and Bilingualism
Closely linked to the environmental
advantages to learning – particularly with language learning – is the
difference of learning through immersion. Immersion is the act of learning by
being fully immersed in the topic of study for at least 50 percent of the time.
In terms of bilingualism, it means learning by being in an environment which
speaks the language being learned for at least half of your time awake each
day. This is something which has benefits for both adults and young children,
but again, there are differences in the rate at which each pick up the
immersion learning cues.
While immersion is a highly
productive method of learning, adults and children still pick things up at different
rates. Referring back to the previous differences, despite being immersed in language
learning, adults are still prone to cognitive degeneration inhibiting their ability
to learn as well as holding on to the same fear of mistakes. It all boils down
to a combination of both physical deterrents as well as environmental
inhibitors that present as learning obstacles with age. It is the overall
healthier cognitive functionality in combination with more favorable
environmental stimulants (among other, more unique, criteria) that ultimately gives
children the advantage when it comes to learning new languages and other topics
more quickly than their older selves are capable of pulling off years later.