Why do adults struggle to learn a new language? A UBC expert says it’s not for lack of trying. In fact, it may be the opposite
Any adult who has attempted to learn a new language knows how difficult it can be to master the intricacies of a foreign grammar and syntax. Canada Research Chair in Language Acquisition in the Department of Linguistics, Carla Hudson Kam is uncovering why adults struggle to learn languages—and explains why trying harder doesn’t always pay off.
What does your latest research reveal about how adults learn language?
We’ve known for a long time that adults tend not to be as good at learning languages as children over the long term. In the short term, however, adults are better.
We had various groups of adult learners exposed to an artificial language. When the adults weren’t trying to learn anything—just sitting and colouring while the language played in the background—they weren’t so great at finding individual words. But they were actually better at figuring out word categories.
When adults were really trying to learn something, they did better at learning the actual words, but they did much worse at learning grammar.
What does this mean for someone who wants to learn a new language as an adult?
I think people have taken this to mean that they shouldn’t try, and that’s totally the wrong message. We found that people who tried did worse, but the same literature that inspired this study also shows that if you are trying and your attention is directed in the right way, then you actually do better as an adult. So it’s not that adults shouldn’t try, but trying without some sort of guidance probably is not the way to go.
Is there any way for adults to learn the way children do?
We’ve done a lot of work in my lab trying to turn adults into kids. We’ve tried to take regions of the brain offline by doing transcranial magnetic stimulation and things like that, but you can’t turn an adult into a kid.
I think the take-home message is not to try to be like a kid, but to really use the advantages that you have as an adult. You have much more control over the language that you hear when you’re an adult. So spend time in a classroom studying, practice speaking with others. Instead of trying to turn yourself into a kid, make the most of your adult-like abilities. You’re not going to get as good as someone who learned as a kid, but you’ll be better than if you tried to learn like a kid, because you can’t turn back the clock.
To view Kam’s study, co-authored by former PhD student Amy Finn, click here