Is it easier for kids to learn languages than adults? The answer, according to one linguist, is ‘no’. Indeed, English as a Foreign Language lecturer Anne Merritt claims that in some ways adults have it much easier than children when it comes to learning a new language.

In an article for The Telegraph, she explains that the idea that young people can get to grips with a second or third language quicker than their adult counterparts because their memories are better and their brains are able to soak up so much information is a “myth”. This is not just her opinion but proven by scientific study, which suggests that in the right conditions an adult has a greater aptitude for learning a new language than a child.

Are our minds better with age?

Ms Merritt lists four reasons why mature minds have the knowledge necessary to be multilingual. The first is that they already have a foundation of knowledge of the workings of language. In comparison, a child is still learning their own mother tongue. Because adults already know what steps to take to build a sentence, they can apply this thinking to the new language they are learning. They can similarly recognise patterns in their own language, and use this to understand the rules that apply to the one they are being taught.

Perhaps adults have set their expectations too high when it comes to judging their own efforts at speaking and writing in a foreign language. Ms Merritt suggests that would-be linguists don’t compare their own progress to that of a child as what is expected of them is completely different. An adult’s vocabulary is far, far greater than a child’s, as is the range of topics they are expected to talk about. Because of this, adults feel they have to learn to speak a second language with the same fluency as they do their mother tongue, not realising that a child who is doing the same is less adept at their first language, to begin with. “We are more self-conscious, inclined to save face, and are more easily embarrassed. Children tend to be less inhibited, so they can practice communicating without intimidation,” she says. By reducing the pressure they put on themselves and stopping comparing themselves to their younger counterparts, people may find their language skills are better than they thought.

Conditions are important

The conditions in which you learn also play a part. Many adults study languages in their spare time, working at home from textbooks and audio exercises. A child has the benefit of a qualified professional to learn from, peers with a similar skill set to practice their conversation on and set a time within the week to completely dedicate to learning a language. Is it any wonder, therefore, that adults claim it is easier for kids to learn a language? Yet Ms Merritt claims that adults who are taught in similar conditions to a child have the same chance of success.

Finally, Ms Merritt notes that one area where children do tend to perform better than older students is in pronunciation because kids are such good mimics. However, she adds it is a mistake to confuse good pronunciation with fluency. The clarity of the speaker and the context of what they are saying can iron out any problems with pronunciation, and even if they speak with a strong accent, they may be completely fluent.

Last month, the Guardian reported that there was a ten per cent decline between 2012 and 2013 in the number of students learning French. Other education commentators have also warned that the language skills of UK-educated pupils are in decline. However, moves are being made to reverse this. One example is the Junior Language Challenge, which is a competition open to all children of primary school age in the UK. Kids learn up to three languages not typically taught in classrooms over a period of nine months and the finalists then go through a series of challenges to show their aptitude for learning languages.

The Northern Echo reported this week that one of this year’s finalists is the fourth member of his family to make it through to the last round of the competition. Nine-year-old Isaac Walker’s two older sisters and his cousin previously also made it to this challenge. The grand final will take place in London next month, where Isaac and his fellow competitors will be tested on their abilities at speaking an African language.