Although I agree with the premise of the research findings that adults can learn languages, and perhaps even faster than children, I don’t like the way language acquisition is measured by creating an artificial language. If I am presented with a fake language, I probably won’t bother to pay attention to its grammar because I simply don’t care. Motivation and usability are huge factors in language learning and those can’t be quantified in a language laboratory.

Group of young students studying
Group of young students studying

Education Week reported last week in the article, Study: Older Students May Learn Language Rules Faster that a study in Israel by Sara Ferman of Tel Aviv University and Avi Karni of the University of Haifa showed that older students are more capable of understanding grammar. Israeli researchers made up an artificial language and tested students aged 8, 12 and 21 on the grammatical patterns of the language and found that older students better captured the grammar of the language.

The researchers created a language in which verbs were pronounced differently if their subject was an animate or inanimate object. Twenty-four students—eight each at ages 8, 12, and 21—were given 10 consecutive daily lessons on how to pronounce noun-verb pairs in the language, though students were not explicitly taught the animate/inanimate pronunciation rule.

The researchers found that all three age groups improved over time, but the young adults greatly outperformed both groups of children in both speed and accuracy of learning and applying the language rule. The 8-year-olds made the most mistakes, and they had the least improvement; even after being given five more practice sessions than the adults. Moreover, the 8-year-olds were never able to transfer the pronunciation rule to new examples, while nearly all of the 12-year-olds and adults were able to do so. Overall, the older the student, the better that student was at recognizing the rule, applying it quickly, and using it in new situations.

Who wants to learn a fake language and then be tested on its rules? My whole premise is that language is an all encompassing, multi-sensory experience involving sounds, music, feelings and fun. Even someone like me who is passionate about languages may not do well on a test like this because I have no motivation to actually learn the language because I can never use it.

All the research proves is that teenagers and adults may test well absent a tangible goal that can be used in the real world. I care about real languages and how real people learn and use them.