No Better Age

The point at which language-learning ability starts to decline may be later than expected.

By Annie McDonough, published September 6, 2018 - last reviewed on November 5, 2018

Locrifa/Shutterstock
Locrifa/Shutterstock

As with many cognitive skills, picking up a second language comes more easily to kids. But in a large recent study, researchers found that the age at which our ability to learn a new language starts to decline may be much older than previously thought.

Using an online grammar quiz, researchers compiled data from more than 650,000 native and nonnative English speakers with a wide range of ages, immersion levels, ages of first exposure, and native languages. The analysis indicates a steep decline in learning ability after about 17.4 years of age, on average—at least for the acquisition of English grammar. While learners would ideally start by ages 10 to 12 to become as proficient as native speakers, the results suggest, there's still time for teenagers to acquire nativelike skill. "It's probably too late to become a spy, but as long as that wasn't your goal, it's probably not too late," says Boston College psychologist Joshua Hartshorne, a co-author of the study.

Despite the findings, the idea that second language education should start earlier in the U.S. remains valid, according to Hartshorne. "Before, we thought that it should start in kindergarten, and now it seems like you can maybe wait until third grade," he says. "Either way, it's a whole lot earlier than what we're doing right now."