Are Children Better Than Adults at Learning Mandarin?
There’s a common belief that kids naturally excel at learning languages. Everyone says things like…
Kids absorb languages like sponges.
Kids learn languages so much faster than adults.
If you want to be really good at a language, you had better started learning it as a child.
But did you ever ask yourself if there’s any truth to those beliefs? Are they backed by the latest research on language learning? And even if our common beliefs about how children learn languages can be debunked, can we still learn a lot from kids about how to learn languages as adults?
I did. And I did some research (the answers will surprise you!) In this article, we’ll cover some common myths about how children learn languages, learn the facts, and highlight the takeaways we can apply to our own learning.
First, let’s start with the myths and facts (of course, you could scroll down if you just want the actionable takeaways!):
Myth: There’s a limited age window for learning languages.
Probably the most common myth about language learning is that the younger you are, the better. Some people even go as far as to say that if you didn’t start learning a language as a child, you have no business trying it as an adult (ludicrous, I know!)
The idea that there is a special age to learn languages comes from something called the “critical period hypothesis,” based on research from the 50s and 60s by two dudes who were really into the whole language learning process, Wilder Penfield, a neurosurgeon, and Eric Lenneberg, a linguist and neurologist.
Penfield and Lenneberg proposed that there is a limited window of time to learn a language—between the ages of about two and thirteen. Their hypothesis has been hotly debated by other neurology and linguistics nerds and even debunked by other researchers, who point to unreliable data points, questionable statistical methods, and confirmation biases.
Nerdy researcher stuff aside, there’s actually no reason to believe that if you didn’t learn a language before puberty, that you somehow missed the language learning boat.
Why is that? Let’s see why the critical period hypothesis doesn’t hold any water when it comes to learning a second language.
Fact: Age makes a difference, but not that much. (And no, you didn’t miss the language learning boat.)
First of all, the research behind the critical period hypothesis wasn’t even on children learning a second language, but on kids relearning a first language after time away from school.
Second, Penfield and Lenneberg’s theory was based on neuroplasticity, which is basically the brain’s ability to change in response to learning. Back in the day, scientists thought that only young children’s brains had this amazing ability. They theorized that shortly after puberty, most people’s brains became less changeable, and therefore less responsive to learning.
But guess what?
Now we know that the brain keeps this sort of “brainy superpower” even as we age. Actually, several studies have even found that learning a second language as an adult can actually create more neuroplasticity in the brain (and even grow parts of the brain!)1
So while it may still be a good idea to start teaching children a second language at an early age (it’s fun and can even be something you do together as a family!) you shouldn’t be discouraged if you’re picking up Mandarin as an adult. By studying a second language, you’re even actively making your brain, well, brainier.
Myth: Children soak up languages like sponges.
At first glance, it appears that very young children magically absorb language. There’s even a well-known truism that says children absorb languages like sponges. One day they pick up “cat” and the next day “milk”, and with no formal instruction—just by listening to their parents, TV and yes, even the cat—they start reproducing sounds and putting those sounds together into new vocabulary.
How toddlers learn vocabulary is a fascinating subject, so we won’t even scratch the surface here. But contrary to the popular notion, it’s not through osmosis. (By the way, one of the best ways you can learn vocabulary is by playing games, but more on that later.)
And it’s not in the same way a sponge works either…the whole story is much more complex (and interesting!) than that.
Fact: Less about osmosis, more about meaningful immersion.
According to Dr. Carmen Muñoz, Ph.D., a language researcher at the University of Barcelona, to learn a language, children need a lot more than just to be exposed to it, or even soaked in it.
“They need a high frequency of input and of good quality,” she says in a New York Times article on the subject, citing a study she ran in Barcelona, Spain, that found 11-year olds outperformed 8-year olds in English learning, disproving the younger is better theory.2
Why did the 11-year olds do better, when both groups received the same exact instruction? One theory is that, well, they have a social life! Compared to their younger counterparts, it’s possible that the older kids’ “richer” immersive environment could have played a part.
If you look at how very young children learn languages, it’s almost always in a social context, primarily through interactions with mom and dad and other family members. In other words, they don’t sit around with a textbook, but rather learn through interacting, not traditional straight teaching. This is what Dr. Muñoz calls meaningful immersion.
When you take into account all that social exchanges bring to language learning—they imbue words with emotions (which helps memorization), and bring meaning to grammar—the sponge analogy suddenly seems reductionist, if not plain silly.
Myth: Children are naturally better and faster at learning languages than adults.
The current science shows that very young children’s brains are more plastic, meaning that they can make neural connections faster than adults. But at the same time, adult brains aren’t that far behind. So what could account for the seemingly magical way children often learn a second language?
The answer may lie in a little something called an inhibitory neuron.2
Dr. Sandra Kuhlman, Ph.D., a neurobiologist at Carnegie Mellon University, studies inhibitory neurons and exactly what they do (in both kids’ and adults’ brains), which is basically to stop the brain from making new neural connections.
Since learning requires the brain to make new neural connections (and lots of them!), inhibitory neurons actually prevent new learning.
But in children, inhibitory neurons aren’t as strict at locking down neural connections as in adults, so they let more of them slide. This way, children’s brains are, in theory, more “primed” for learning.
But it takes more than a neurological disposition for learning to actually, well, learn. You still need the right environment and learning tools to provide the stimulus needed to create those neural connections in the first place.
Fact: Children’s’ brains are primed for learning, but adults are better equipped to learn.
Sure, children can make new neural pathways a little easier than adults, but adults do one thing better when compared with children—they know how to learn.
Remember that Barcelona study where the 11-year olds beat the 8-year olds in second language learning? One of the theories to explain why they did better was that the older kids had a more complex social environment—the whole meaningful immersion thing.
But another theory chalked it up to, well, just being older. Basically, older children have a better understanding of how to learn at school and how to develop the strategies they need to succeed. In other words, they excelled at the skill of learning.
But there’s more. Researchers in that same study also hypothesized that since the 11-year olds had more time under their belt learning their first language, they could apply that knowledge and those learning strategies to the second language. In other words, they were building on their previous learning experience, or learning from learning.
The takeaway? Older children and adults (I’m talking to you here) are better at developing transferable learning skills than younger kids (eat that, youngsters!)
So there you have it, now it’s all about putting those skills to work!
Myth: Learning as a child is the only way to become truly fluent.
Another myth is that even if adults can learn a second language, they’ll never achieve the same level of fluency had they started as a child.
This misconception came from studies that found that adult second language learners almost always had some type of discernible accent, while children that learn second languages early on didn’t. (This isn’t always the case, as I have friends that learned English as a second language when they were, in fact, within the “critical period” described earlier, yet still have an accent as adults).
But are we saying that to be fluent in a second language, you can’t have an accent at all?
Fact: Adults can achieve fluency (yes, even with an accent).
Because children’s muscles (think about all the muscles it takes to make all those sounds in Mandarin) are better at learning (yes, muscles learn too) than adults’, kids beat adults at pronunciation and oral performance of a second language.3
That explains why it’s harder for adults to sound exactly like a native speaker.
As adult learners, sometimes we’ll sound a little different. (I joke that my Japanese has a Cuban accent.) But having an accent has nothing to do with fluency.
Imagine that two people had a conversation and it was transcribed so you couldn’t hear whether any of the two had an accent. Would you be able to evaluate fluency—the overall mastery of the language—based solely on the transcription?
Of course you would! Because an accent never stopped anyone from communicating effectively (and even superbly) in a foreign language.
So what can we learn from the way kids learn languages?
Okay, so now that we debunked some of the common myths about how children learn languages, let’s take a look at some strategies we can adapt to learning Mandarin at any age.
Make immersion meaningful
Supplement your solo learning with some social time. It’s a great way to get in some of that context and meaning that can help boost your learning—that meaningful immersion piece.
Playing games, sharing jokes, or just chatting with other Mandarin-learning peers allows you to make meaningful connections (remember those neural pathways?)—that make the language come alive in a way that no textbook can.
Being part of a Mandarin community is not only a great way to make learning Mandarin an everyday habit, but oftentimes it’s that missing piece between learning a little and then letting Mandarin fall to the wayside and really sticking with it all the way to fluency (whatever your particular flavor of fluency may be).
You can do all of the above at the Mandarin Monkey Hangouts (play games, share jokes, chat, and join a Chinese learning community), where we get together every week to practice Mandarin conversation and talk about all things Mandarin.
It’s like being in an immersive language environment (so you get all the benefits of Mandarin immersion practice) only it’s 100% judgement-free and you get the support of a community of peers that are learning Mandarin just like you. Oh, and you can speak English too, so you’ll never get totally lost.
We know this intuitively, but the research shows it, too: children learn better when they’re having fun. That’s why in a lot of cases, teaching that includes playing games outperforms traditional teaching methods in foreign language study.5
For adults, playing games is not only a fun way to learn Mandarin, but also a stress-free way to learn Mandarin. Plus, playing visually-driven games like Pictionary can help you remember vocabulary by creating funny word associations and attaching an emotion or meaning to a certain word.
By the way, Pictionary is a popular Mandarin learning game over at the Hangouts. Why? Because stories like the one pictured below help your brain create associations between words in a unique (not to mention entertaining) way that helps you memorize them better.
Learn little by little
Children may learn fast, but they don’t learn everything all at once. Quite the opposite, if you want to teach a child anything, you start with bite-size, foundational concepts. If you try to do too much at one, you won’t get too far.
As adults, sometimes we forget to start with the basics, and to progress little by little, just like children do. We want to learn it all at once. But if you spend 8 hours today learning Mandarin, you probably won’t be any closer to being fluent tomorrow than you are today.
That’s because learning is cumulative. You have to build on foundational concepts to really master a language the same way a child eventually does. Tiny gains snowball over time, even if it’s just 1% better each day.
Young kids are experts at failure. Just watch any toddler learning to walk. They fall, a lot. They’re failing (and falling), but they keep trying.
We can all take a cue from those top-heavy, seemingly-tipsy toddlers and approach failure as part of the journey. Whenever you mispronounce a word, mess up a grammar pattern or otherwise fall flat on your face (figuratively, of course), be like that toddler that gets back up, every time.
The most successful among us are able to accomplish what they set out to achieve because they see failure as an opportunity to grow (and not quit!), from becoming fluent in Mandarin to launching Chinese learning apps to creating new space technology!
If the CEO of Skritter Jake Gill can use mini failures to pivot toward his goals, and Elon Musk can say “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough,” then it must work for us, too, amirite?
Learn about learning
This is where you shine as an adult—you can learn how to learn! So use that to your advantage. In her online course, Dr. Barbara Oakley teaches different methods to get better at learning (yes, you can get better at learning), like chunking, survey and priming, and others.
Consider learning a skill, and a skill that you can improve at to help you take your Mandarin to the next level, whether you’re trying to improve your listening and speaking skills to learning Chinese characters.
Make the world your vocabulary
Research shows that very young children learn vocabulary in what’s called context-rich environments, not by straight teaching from any book.6 As adults, we can adopt that same learning strategy by using the world around us as our vocabulary.
We can use sticky notes to label everything around the house, including what you eat (writing out the pinyin will help you remember the pronunciation, while writing down the characters will help train your eye to recognize it over time).
Whenever you go somewhere, say, the grocery store or the zoo, make it a point to pick stuff from your environment, make a vocab list based on what you see, and look up the words.
The point is that you’ll learn more vocabulary if you are using it in the real world versus drilling words from a book. That’s because, just like children do, you’ll be forming new word associations that help commit that word to memory.
It turns out, children are more successful at learning a second language when they’re taught in and allowed to use their first language, versus being forced to use the second language alone.7
In a review of many studies looking at the overall success rate of this sort of bilingual education found that not only did continuing to learn the first language along with the second language not interfere with the second language learning, it actually improved learning outcomes. Moreover, schools that adopted bilingual education had much lower drop-out rates.
It’s no surprise, then, that learning Chinglish (combining your first language, assuming that’s English, with your target language of Mandarin) is a really useful way to learn Mandarin. And logically, that Chinese podcasts in Chinglish are hands down the best podcasts for learning Chinese put there. (Hint, hint!)
At Mandarin Monkey, we’re big proponents of using Chinglish even in our online lessons. Teachers speak both English and Mandarin so students can benefit from getting the context in both languages, and they’ll modify the ratio of English to Mandarin depending on the individual student’s level.
Keep an open mind
Children don’t have a lot of preconceived notions about language learning. They really don’t question the why’s of grammar rules or pronunciation, or get hung up on the funny idiosyncrasies of language.
In many ways, they have an open mind when it comes to learning a second language.
In your own Mandarin learning, where can you adopt an “open-mind” policy?
Age is nothing but a number, right?
Sure, there’s something special about how children learn languages, but the story is more complex (but nevertheless still magical) than it seems. Also, there’s no reason to think you’re any less capable of learning a second language as an adult.
In fact, there is plenty of scientific evidence to suggest you’re at your prime for learning Mandarin right now—so now the real question is: What are you waiting for?
p.s. If you have any first-hand experience teaching kids, either professionally or in your own family, please share your comments below. We’d love to get your thoughts on the subject!
1. Brain and Language Volume 162, November 2016, Pages 1-9 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0093934X16300050
3. Scovel, Thomas. 1988. A time to speak: a psycholinguistic inquiry into the critical period for human speech. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
4. Collier, V.P. 1989. How long? A synthesis of research on academic achievement in a second language. TESOL Quarterly, 23, 509-531.