IT'S never too late to learn another language. Surprisingly, under controlled conditions adults turn out to be better than children at acquiring a new language skill.
It is widely believed that children younger than 7 are good at picking up new languages because their brains rewire themselves more easily, and because they use what is called procedural, or implicit, memory to learn - meaning they pick up a new language without giving it conscious thought. Adults are thought to rely on explicit memory, whereby they actively learn the rules of a language.
But some linguists now question whether this apparent difference in language-learning ability reflects our attitudes to young children and adults rather than differences in the brain. "If adults make a mistake we don't correct them because we don't want to insult them," says Sara Ferman of Tel Aviv University, Israel.
Ferman and Avi Karni from the University of Haifa, Israel, devised an experiment in which 8-year-olds, 12-year-olds and adults were given the chance to learn a new language rule. In the made-up rule, verbs were spelled and pronounced differently depending on whether they referred to an animate or inanimate object.
Participants were not told this, but were asked to listen to a list of correct noun-verb pairs, and then voice the correct verb given further nouns. The researchers had already established that 5-year-olds performed poorly at the task, and so did not include them in the study. All participants were tested again two months later to see what they remembered.
"The adults were consistently better in everything we measured," says Ferman. When asked to apply the rule to new words, the 8-year-olds performed no better than chance, while most 12-year-olds and adults scored over 90 per cent. Adults fared best, and have great potential for learning new languages implicitly, says Ferman. Unlike the younger children, most adults and 12-year-olds worked out the way the rule worked - and once they did, their scores soared. This shows that explicit learning is also crucial, says Ferman, who presented the results at the International Congress for the Study of Child Language in Montreal, Canada, this week.
The results are exciting, says David Birdsong from the University of Texas, Austin - particularly the finding that children's pronunciation is inferior to that of older subjects.
But Robert DeKeyser at the University of Maryland in College Park warns that artificial experiments like this do not necessarily transfer to the real world. Even if adults are better at implicit learning, children are more likely to get the chance to learn implicitly.
De Lange, Catherine. 2011. "Age no excuse for failing to learn a new language". New Scientist. Posted: July 22, 2011. Available online: ttp://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21128224.000-age-no-excuse-for-failing-to-learn-a-new-language.html