There’s an age-old myth that says full-grown adults can’t become fluent in a second language. And lately, the media has been pointing to a new study that seems to suggest as much, saying that the fluency age cutoff is around 18. But that’s just not true.
To make things clear, we need to define fluency. According to the dictionary, “fluency” is the ability to speak, write, and express oneself in a foreign language easily and articulately. Basically, can you learn enough of a language to communicate with a native speaker without much strain for either party? Challenging, yes, but not an impossibility for a 19-year old, or even a 58-year old.
You see, there’s a difference between native grammatical fluency — being a “native speaker” — and basic fluency in a language. That’s what people are confusing here, and it’s why this myth continues to hang around.
As Monika Schmid, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Essex, points out, the study, published in the journal Cognition, never even mentions the words “fluency” or “fluent.” Why? Because that’s not what the study was looking for. It was trying to find out if there is a “critical window” for people to learn the complicated intricacies of a language’s grammar at the same level as a native speaker.
Even then, the results of the study are uncertain at best due to the methodology used, says Elissa Newport, a professor of neurology at Georgetown University who specialises in language acquisition. Newport goes on to say most languages can be learned in about five years, regardless of age.
It certainly gets harder to learn a language as you get older, but it’s not because you’ve missed some special window. It’s more likely to do with your circumstances, like gradual cognitive decline and memory loss, having less time to study due to work and family, and the lack of a motivating force to push you along.
It’s usually not necessary for you to learn a second language as an adult — you’re not in school and your job probably doesn’t require it — so it becomes something of a hobby you occasionally make time for.
If you pick up a language in your 40s, will you be able to sound like a native speaker? Probably not. But you can become fluent if you put the work in. Don’t let some silly myth hold you back.