There is a pretty common myth that gets circulated a lot about the fact that younger people are better language learners than older folks. As matter of fact, there seems to be a common fact that gets circulated that at a certain age (around 13 or so) your brain solidifies and it becomes a lot more difficult to learn a language.
But, is that really true? Does it really become a lot more difficult to learn a language after that window of opportunity closes? This is a question that has been researched several times in order to try to find the true answer, but the short answer is well, kind of, but not as bad as you think.
Let’s take a look at it from another angle though. Children are actually incredibly terrible language learners. Absolutely the worst of the bunch to be honest. You don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at just one example of how absolutely horrible they are at learning languages.
5 Year Home Stay, but a N4 Level
At about 5 years of age, a child might have about an N4 level in Japanese (and that is really stretching it). Actually, they don’t even learn any kanji until they are 7, so they are a little short of the 300 they need to know for the test, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt just for demonstration purposes. They still would need to be a baby genius to use a lot of the more complicated N4 grammar, but again, let’s just assume this baby is ‘gifted’.
So, if we subtract the first 6 months because babies are usually just floating around through life in a haze. Actually, babies can’t hear or see clearly until at least 3 months, so they are basically drunk that whole time. I can personally vouch for our little one doing the same. Okay, so you subtract those 6 months and you get 4.5 years of nothing but English practice. Parents will probably squeeze in some music or numbers practice in there, but for the most part it is a lot of English.
And a baby has all of its needs taken care of. They are practically staying at a 5 star resort, being waited on, hand and foot. Someone bathes them, feeds them, even completely coats their entire environment with equipment to keep them from injuring themselves. Every possible consideration is thought of and compensated for.
Now, there is a little bit of stress here and there. They do have to learn to crawl, walk, and some other motor skills. And yes that takes some time, but let’s face it, not that much time.
They don’t have a job to worry about, bills to pay, arguments with family and friends, deadlines, climate change, doomsday approaching, etc… They don’t care about any of that, as they will happily demonstrate to you on a daily basis. They are only concerned about sleeping, eating, and throwing things on the floor for you to pick up. That’s their job, basically.
You Would be able to Do it, too
Now, if you met someone who had stayed at a 5 star resort for 4.5 years surrounding by two people that speak nothing but Japanese all day, you would expect that person to be pretty darn fluent, wouldn’t you? Okay, so it isn’t exactly the same, so you might have to add in that the someone is also doing strength training for 3 to 4 hours a day as well (to compensate for a baby learning to walk, handle a spoon, drink from a cup, etc…).
But, yet, a 5 year old can generally talk at about an N4 level, and that, like I said, is stretching it. The pronunciation is still a little unclear and they make plenty of mistakes, so not quite that level, but close enough for this blog post.
So why do we go around saying that babies are such great language learners? They are actually quite horrendous language learners if you think about it. They are just surrounded by the language on a daily basis and learn it in a fairly pressure free environment. They learn the language out of true personal desire to communicate with others and use it as a tool.
So, although I think the JLPT is an amazing way to measure your level and give you an idea of where you are with proficiency. You should stop short of letting it worry you. Yes, set goals to work toward, but don’t feel too bad if you miss. You learn more from mistakes than from getting everything correct.
Go Out and Break Stuff
Learn like a child. Take some Japanese words and mangle them with someone today. The cards aren’t staked against you just for being old. In a lot of ways, you can learn faster than the little ones, just give it a try.
Do you like to break stuff? Tell me about it in the comments.
Do you know someone that believes in this age myth? Send them a link to this article and debunk it for them.
Photo by Shino 志野