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Would it be easier to learn a second language as a child, when you've had limited exposure to language in general, or as an adult, when you already have a strong basis in your first language? Are there any studies testing this? Please include scientific research in your answers.

  • Possible duplicate of: languagelearning.stackexchange.com/q/60/13 – Flimzy Apr 5 '16 at 19:34
  • I think it depends on a lot of factors. Like in which conditions you would learn a language (parents native speakers?), whom, etc. And asking for an ideal is calling to people opinion. As such I am voting to close as opinion-based. – bilbo_pingouin Apr 5 '16 at 20:11
  • @Flimzy edited the question to fall within the scope of this site. – fi12 Apr 5 '16 at 20:32
  • I think it's improved... but I still think "ideal" has to be defined. Adults and children learn differently. Thus, depending on your "goal," one or the other may be more ideal. But since most people don't get to choose whether they learn a language as an adult or child, I think what's more interesting is simply understanding the differences... – Flimzy Apr 5 '16 at 20:34
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    It is certainly improved. But I still don't like "ideal". Can you define that? – bilbo_pingouin Apr 5 '16 at 21:03
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There are pros and cons to learning a language in any age group.

From the Frankfurt International School:

In fact, studies have shown that adolescents and adults are in many ways better at learning a new language than children, except in the area of pronunciation.

From the Max Planck Institute for Psychoanalysts:

In order to answer when one should learn a second language, one should first determine what one wants to optimize: the end result or time devoted to learning... [a] language which is learned before the ages of 6-9 is typically learnt to a level where the speaker has no detectable accent and is very comfortable using it.... On the other hand, if a language is learnt later, speakers may have a slight accent in their pronunciation but may otherwise reach a very proficient native-like level.

tl;dr While children do pick up on speaking quickly, they may not understand the ins and outs of their L1, which is a key part of learning an L2. Teens/adolescents will understand their L1 more proficiently, but they will falter in the area of pronunciation.

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I don't have references at hand, but according to what I remember from my university-level SLA course, adults initially progress more rapidly than children with learning a new language, but at some point children's progress becomes clearly faster. If we compare ultimate attainment of a language, the correlation is quite clear: the earlier the initial age of acquisition, the higher the ultimate attainment. So in short, if you are thinking about the long-term perspective, the earlier you begin the better.

For more discussion and references, you can look at Understanding Second Language Acquisition by Lourdes Ortega (2008).

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