There is a lot of received wisdom about learning a foreign language: that you have to start young, that older learners struggle and that there is a limit to how many languages our brains can handle.
As EF has been around since 1965, we have gained unique insights into how people learn languages.
Out of a very large cohort of foreign language students that studied with us in the past two years in more than 50 schools around the world, we were able to tease the following fascinating insights – many of which bring nuance to the received wisdom surrounding language learning, and even turn some of it on its head.
1. Language immersion is a particularly effective way to start learning a new language
People who have had no prior contact with a language make more progress in the first weeks of their time abroad than any other group of learners. Although you might expect immersion to be intimidating for absolute beginners, it does not seem to be the case for most learners.
Our data shows that going abroad to learn a language as a true beginner will give a powerful boost to your learning, regardless of your age.
2. Young adults are uniquely primed to learn languages fast
Students in their 20’s learn foreign languages faster in an immersion environment than any other age group. This is likely because young adults have the study skills and familiarity with grammar that make learning a new language faster. They usually also have a strong external motivating factor to learn foreign languages because of their studies or career dreams; speaking a foreign language is an asset while studying and is known to boost earnings when working.
3. Men and women learn languages at the same speed
Lots of research, including our own, finds gender differences in foreign language proficiency, with women generally being both more proficient and more motivated to learn foreign languages. But there’s good news for men who study abroad: when looking specifically at people learning foreign languages in an immersion environment, there’s no overall difference in learning speed between men and women.
4. Speaking a second language will help you learn a third
The biggest variation in learning speed is between individual students, but our data also shows that students from countries where two or more languages are used in the education system learn faster than students from countries where a single language is dominant.
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Contributed by:Kate from EF International Language Campuses