Popular wisdom on the age factor in second language (L2) learning is that children learn much faster and become much better users than adults. But recent comparative studies of young (pre-pubescent) and older L2 learners have provided some new hope for older learners. It seems that when it comes to L2 learning, children and their elders are a bit like the tortoise and hare.
Children get off to a head start but they go slower though ultimately farther than older learners who, contrary to the popular wisdom and despite a late start, learn faster and well, while rarely going the distance to “near-native performance.” What is it that accounts for the different pace and range of L2 learning? According to one recent scientific article, the determining factor is not age, except perhaps to the extent that age contributes to the creation of a less nurturing learning environment.
Typically, immigrant children and the children of immigrant parents are immersed in an L2 learning environment which includes playmates and classmates as well as teachers and care givers who are native speakers. They thus spend most of their time outside the home in a native-speaking environment, where they are regularly provided with comprehensible and interesting L2 input which, as they meet and make new friends, they are highly motivated to transform into interesting and comprehensible L2 output. (Sorry about the scientific jargon; what we’re talking here is speech). Immigrant parents and adults, on the other hand, tend to spend most of their time in immigrant community L1 (their native language) environments where they have less opportunity and incentive to use and acquire L2.
There are cases, however, where the old hares act like the younger tortoises, achieving near-native proficiency, and that is when they are in a learning environment that effectively keeps them young. When highly motivated adult learners are exposed to a naturalistic L2 environment -- an environment where they are naturally exposed to and spurred to use L2 speech -- their age and previous learning experience can actually be an asset. Older L2 learners are better equipped than young learners, because of their accumulation of previous learning experience, to notice gaps in their knowledge and pay conscious attention to grammatical form in processing the L2 speech that is present in the environment. My teaching experience contains a good example of this. Italian army officers involved in NATO operations in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s spent months in an English-speaking work environment and were able to consolidate and dramatically improve their knowledge and communicative use of English. They were motivated, disciplined and experienced learners who took full advantage of a nurturing environment.
Considering the results of the most recent research and my own experience as an L2 learner and teacher I think it is fair to conclude that age is indeed a factor in L2 acquisition. But while older learners generally do not achieve the “near native” proficiency levels attained by younger learners, age may even be a learning enhancement factor for motivated learners in a nurturing, naturalistic L2 environment. So, if you want to learn a second language in your post-adolescent years, age is not an excuse. Take a few months or a year and go take a course where your chosen L2 is spoken by the people you’ll be living with. A nurturing L2 environment can turn an experienced, late-starting hare into a long-distance, fast-finishing tortoise.