Cognitive scientists have known for several years that adults have a harder time learning a new language than children. However, it has never been clear just when this change occurs, and how long this “critical period” lasts. Researchers at MIT investigated the critical period and found that it is longer than expected; children can learn the grammar of a language with ease until the age of 17 or 18 years. However, they found that one cannot expect to be proficient in a language at a native speaker’s level past the age of 10. 

The study required testing the process of long-term language learning, which is difficult to do in a laboratory setting. Thus, the researchers created an online quiz that not only gathered data from people in the process of learning a language but was also fun and simple enough to acquire a very large pool of subjects. The quiz collected “snapshots” of people who grasp English at varying degrees. Using questions on various grammar rules, the researchers could roughly determine at which stage a particular person was in their learning of English, ranging from learned at birth to a beginner’s stage. 

After finishing the quiz, participants were asked for their current age as well as information concerning their known languages and the age at which they learned English. The results showed that the ability to learn the grammar of a language starts to decline at around age 17 or 18. What still remains to be investigated is what causes this decline. The drop in grammar learning ability could be due to natural changes in brain plasticity. However, social factors such as leaving home may also come into play at age 17 and 18, creating barriers for language learning. 

This study has answered some important questions about language learning. However, the large amount of data collected is valuable for additional studies and is posted online. The researchers hope that their data could be used to break down more mysteries regarding language in the field of cognitive science.

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This post was written by McKenzie Cline