Critical window for learning a language

Very interesting study. Explains why my French grammar is so poor perhaps. Not sure what explains my poor French vocabulary though :wink::grinning:

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I got top marks for English at school… and have gone downhill … over time.

When we came to France… I almost lost the ability to tell right from wrong (grammatically) … as the 2 languages, with their very different rules, fought for dominance in my brain. :upside_down_face::wink::laughing:


It does not strike me as terribly surprising that the best time to learn a language is the same period (birth to 17/18 years) as the best time to learn most things. You could probably push that out to the early 20’s as we now know that brain development continues in most young adults up to around 23-25 years old.

It is often said that it is easier for children to learn a language than for an adult - this is probably true but I suspect the difference is not quite  as marked as most believe.

For a start children take 14-18 years to fully acquire “adult” language - I suspect that if an adult decided that they wished to learn a foreign language, studied it and was exposed to and practised it every day for 18 years then the result would be a pretty proficient speaker.

There are differences, of course - I think it gets harder and for most becomes impossible to learn a language purely by exposure to it as we get older (but we have different attitudes to adults who are learning than we do to children acquiring language) and, very importantly, it gets really hard to loose an accent as an adult - there is (I believe) evidence that there is a critical period for learning the sounds of a language, both from the point of comprehension and also generating the sounds.

Finally we all differ in our ability to learn a language so some people are going to have no difficulty, even as an adult whereas others struggle.

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Chomsky thought humans have an innate language learning ability to acquire a first language. They form rules without knowing what the rules are. For instance, children say “I buyed” even though they have never heard an adult say it, but they know, instinctively, that a past tense is made by putting a “d” sound at the end.

I think most children will have acquired almost all their language well before 14. My granddaughter is 9 and I reckon she has probably eighty per cent of the language she will gain through her life.

Posts on language learning always interest me, because of my own “issues” around speaking and hearing French since we settled here just over two years ago. I can’t rightly judge where I am, although I would have hoped to be more proficient than I mostly feel.

I learned French first at school in 1949 and found it exciting and interesting. After six years of classroom study I gained a GCE ‘A’ level, but we hardly spoke French and never had conversations. My first attempts to speak French were in the Calais hypermarkets in the late 1990s, as a booze-cruiser (we also bought garlic and tins of cassoulet).

Now I mainly talk with neighbours, in local shops and the coiffeuse, and with officials. People say I speak good French, and I can read newspapers and letters with reasonable ease, and without having to translate what I read into English.

But I still find spoken French rather hard to catch at first hearing, and my concern for grammatical correctness is a definite obstacle to communication at times. I listen to France Bleu Normandie and find it very reassuring to hear people chatting about everyday things, recipes and stuff like that, in simple and familiar mode.

But I am mostly very self-conscious and awkward when out and about, and not at all sure how to overcome that. Any suggestions? I do think older people (I’m nigh on 80) can learn new tricks, and I rather déplore the idea that the capacity to learn falls off with age. The brain is infinitely versatile and responsive, I think, and our attitude to learning is crucial. I shall not allow. myself to be written off by pundits half my age, still wet behind their ears :grin: IMO.

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I’d have to bone up on Chomsky - 30 years since I read any of his work and I’m not sure that all of his theories are still accepted exactly as he formulated them.

But, yes, we are able to deduce rules of grammar - initially, children learn the individual words. So, in the case of past participles both regular and irregular ones. They then figure out that there is a rule “add ‘ed’” and apply it - typically over-generalising which is when they appear to un-learn words they knew and come out with things like “buyed”. Finally they re-learn that the irregulars are irregular.

Of course we’re not pre-programmed that adding “ed” forms a past participle, that would leave French kids out in the cold as the rules differ in French (and German, and,…, and,…).

Adults approach learning differently - as they already have the concepts and vocabulary in their native tongue they tend to get presented with the rule and the irregulars together - which is harder to learn (lots of facts at once rather than small numbers of facts over time).

That said there are adults who seem to be able to learn by immersion in the way that children do so the ability is not automatically lost.

I might even argue that most kids get to 80% earlier (than 9) but acquisition and refinement certainly go on longer than that. My 14-year old has a good bit of more complex and precision vocabulary to go - for instance one of yesterday’s “I don’t know what that means” was “extruded”.

Edit: Going back to “buyed” - one more difference between children and adults learning a language is that we view a 5 year old saying “buyed” as acceptable, cute even, whereas an adult saying the same thing - even if obviously working in a 2nd language - does not get the same response.

Read Steven Pinker’s fascinating book ‘The language Instinct’ if you haven’t already :blush:

I’ll have a look but at 435 pages it might take more than 10 minutes!

It is a fairly quick read, it’s not very technical. It is written for laymen :blush:

I’m always amazed that a lot of people who post on expat forums expect to become fluent in French very quickly after arriving in the country. If they do they need to be congratulated on their hard work. Children have to work at developing and improving their language skills and so do adults but adults will probably have to work much harder. Being immersed in a language is fine but if anyone actually becomes proficient in that language without any input it would be a huge surprise to me. Peter was lucky, he did his A level French and got an excellent grounding in the basics of the language, (it often surprises people when they discover that basic means most important), it’s grammar, vocabulary and syntax. He didn’t speak much French at the time but when he needed to he understood how the language works. Adults without that background knowledge need to learn it through books, CDs or teachers. At this point it’s also important to understand how day to day French actually works. You might know how to translate I am 25 years old from English into French but unless you know that the French don’t use that phrase you will never succeed. If you can translate, ‘I am 25 years old’, you should also be able to work out, ‘ I have 25 years’, and that will get you further.
At the end of the day the best way for an adult to learn a language is for them to use it, preferably one to one with a native speaker, if you find one who is prepared to correct your mistakes, better still. Remove the phrase, ‘Do you speak English?’ from your everyday speech, get involved, don’t evade or avoid the problem. When I am entering into a non everyday situation I check vocabulary and practise phrases, dealing with a hospital visit or a car service needs effort but that effort often pays dividends. I speak a lot more French than I speak English and I watch a bit of French TV. I no longer translate the French to English I usually understand what is being said through the vocabulary that I’ve picked up and contextual clues.
If anyone asked me if I had any regrets in life I would include two, the first is that I regret being a prat and wasting the five French lessons a week I had for five years at secondary school and the second is that I regret not spending a year in France with relatives when I was teenager, my sister did that and came back fluent. I’ve paid heavily for wasting the opportunities that I had when my brain was more attuned to language learning.


Great post David.

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I agree Mandy, David makes a very clear case on the importance of sound basic foundations. My wife knew no French at all, but took 10 weekly lessons from a professional teacher, and the programme was professionally structured, with proper homework and useful exercises in reading and speaking, which we both enjoyed doing.

Although we couldn’t afford 400 euros for another ten lessons, my wife learned to tune her ear to the different sounds of French, to say a few simple phrases clearly, and to match written words to their sounds. She now recognises words she hears people say, it’s no longer an unintelligible babble. That small investment in her formation was very well worth it, and has improved her confidence greatly. She sees the task of learning French do-able, not an impossibility.

Another benefit is that she now uses her phone to translate written French into English, and can recognise patterns in French grammar and syntax, and how they correspond to their English equivalents (e.g. that adjectives usually follow nouns; and how interrogative phrases are constructed).

My own grammar school education shows very much more clearly in my written style than when I talk to people, and that tendency to pedantry still intrudes into my efforts at conversation in French. It’s also an age thing. We were taught to talk proper in the 1940s and 50s. Or get a slap round the head! But I am getting the hang of things, always use French outdoors, and never get a response in English from the French people I know as who do have some English. But I realise the gradient to even a modest level of proficiency will be slow, but enjoyable.

David (and Stella) I do look up words and sometimes make short notes before an important interviêw, and the fact that you have also found this useful is very reassuring. It does help me to do it. In social situations à drop to drink also works wonders :upside_down_face::astonished::stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:


:rofl::rofl: alcohol should be imbibed with moderation… of course…but relaxing (by whatever means) is very much the key to getting to grips with speaking French, in my view.


David makes the same point that I did - namely that children take years to become proficient, so any adult who does so in less than 10-15 years is probably doing quite well.

The fact that adults can sometimes become proficient in less time suggests that we are not necessarily less able to learn languages as adults - but we do approach the task in a different way. We also come with a lot of linguistic and intellectual development behind us, some of which, such as the patterns of grammar, pronunciation and idiom from our mother tongue, are hard to unlearn and likely to give us away as non-native speakers.

One big difference between adults and babies is that adult brains are more-or-less fully developed. I suspect that we are  pre-programmed to take the babble of sounds we hear and plug them into the connections being made in our developing brains - thus making sense of them. That process is different in adults which probably explains why few can pick up a language by pure immersion alone


Children do take years to develop their language skills but they also work at it. A lot of adults seem to believe that the language skills will arrive without the work. I’m sure for a tiny fraction of the population that happens but for the rest of us there are no short cuts. Let’s not forget either that we are all different and what one person’s brain copes with and understands may never make sense to another.
The reading age required to understand many British newspapers is about eight or nine years. For most of us living or even working in France there is no need to develop our language skills to the same level as our first language, even a much lower level of understanding will open up so many opportunities. Last time I visited Italy I was frustrated because I didn’t know what was going on around me, my knowledge of Italian is lacking, I can’t imsgine how awful it must be living like that.


I certainly agree that anyone who comes over thinking that they will somehow “absorb” the language with no effort is deluding themselves - I definitely work at what bit of French I can manage (inadequate, particularly spoken). My son would also tell you that we have regulatory alignment on the “no short cuts” point as well as I am constantly telling him that if he wishes to speak another language he actually has to put some effort in.

That said I remember being clueless about French at his age (just squeaked an O’ Level “C”) and for the same reasons - too little attention to the basics, too little work on vocab and… almost certainly not that great an aptitude for languages (your third point, with which I also agree).

I reckon that I could nail the GCSE these days but have hit a bit of a barrier in becoming more fluent, especially in spoken language. I did manage to pick up “reculer” from being told to “back up a bit” when I got tangled in a supermarket barrier yesterday (followed the person in front a bit too closely and it closed on me but I was forward of the sensor so it did not re-trigger).

I appreciate that it was a laughably pathetic bit of language acquisition but it was acquisition and I was quite proud that my French "ear"is getting a bit better, even if I then don’t know the words. I’m currently focussing on vocab which needs beefing up massively.

I can’t “think” in French which is also a disadvantage, having to think in English and speak in French means that, usually, by the time I’ve figured out what to say, the moment has passed.


Hello Peter

I also took a course when I first arrived in France. I was very fortunate to have it provided for free by the predecessor to Pole Emploi and it lasted for 3 months. They spoke only French and it was an incredibly useful experience. Well worth doing if people have the time.


I have a theory that if you drink the country’s national tipple, your accent improves, works for me in German (schnapps) and Russian (vodka)
Seriously though, language pros believe that the cut-off date for ease of learning a new language is 35


so the cut off date is 35 yrs old ? oh fooey i’m stuffed then…it does seem a struggle to learn anything,but i keep on trying; to stop would be failure.
My youngest son came to france speaking no french at all; he now studies languages at a french university,one particlar fire we are keen to fan the flames on!
he showed such an aptitude it would be stupid to ignore it. when he was in school he helped the french kids with their english and french homework! and came to the conclusion that many french people can’t use their own language properly either. (thats my excuse and i’m sticking to it…)
It was hard to find ‘natives’ who would speak french when we arrrived many years ago; all thay wanted to do was practice their english on US! …it ended in many hours poring through the thickest french books i’ve ever seen to ‘get that right’ as the elderly french man said:- a retired university lecturer and publisher; He was a kid in paris during the nazi occupation,with many stories to tell; such as having three kilo’s of sugar but no other food,and about the locals ‘catapulting’ bread into the velodrome to stop the jewish children, including babies (locked inside alone for 3 days) from starving.pretty soon armed soldiers aided by the gendarmerie…stopped them helping.The wretched survivors where afterwards all quietly taken away on trains to their deaths.
Living here in the comparative quiet of france its sometimes hard to beleive things like this really happened; it’s what happens when you take your eye off the ball…or beleive politicians are honest.


I’m more inclined to say phooey to the 35 years old cut off.

Granted it gets a bit harder after 35 but not impossible.

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