When the topic of language learning comes up, how many times have you heard someone state a variation of the following?
“There’s no point in learning a language as an adult. You’ll never become fluent. You’ve missed your shot. You don’t have a kid’s sponge brain required for language learning.”Idiots everywhere
For quite some time now, this has been proven to be a big pile of BS.
It is definitely possible to become fluent in Mandarin Chinese as an adult. According to data (and the vast amount of people who’ve done it), it’s also possible to reach a native level if you start learning after you turn 18 years old. The big difference is you learn differently as an adult. Granted, young learners have some advantages over adults, but adult language learners have their own set of benefits.
Excuses, Excuses, Excuses
The quote above is a commonly held misconception that, to me, is indicative of a lack of desire to learn a language.
I don’t want to be too hard on people who believe this. After all, we were told it was basically impossible for adults to learn languages for a really long time.
In addition, learning a language isn’t for everyone, and it takes hundreds of hours (thousands of hours for Mandarin) to reach a good level of fluency, no matter what age you are.
But the question is, ‘is it possible?’
And the answer is a comprehensive ‘yes’.
What is the Best Age to Learn Mandarin?
It’s true that there are some advantages young language learners have over adults:
Cognitive advantages – Babies and young children are capable of quickly forming neural connections. At least, they’re usually much faster than adults with this. They’re then able, over time, to strengthen those neural pathways and really double down on the skills they’ve learned with their malleable baby brain. This is a big reason why usually young learners are much better at forming native accents in a second language.
Environmental advantages – Both adults and children both learn a language fastest within an immersive environment, but kids have it easier in this regard. Children simply have more time to learn and are able to spend a long time in environments that sharpen their communication skills. They also have fewer inhibitions and haven’t yet developed the anxiety that comes with making constant mistakes – a central theme of language learning.
The above are strong arguments for learning a second language as early as possible. But what about adults? Surely they have some advantages in language learning over children?
Well, yes they do.
Adults are smarter than kids.
Not all of them, of course. There are plenty of flat earthers and people who believe angels are real.
But how can we utilise our adult brains to learn Mandarin Chinese in an efficient manner?
How Do We Learn Mandarin Chinese Differently as Adults?
A big part of it comes down to desire and efficient use of time.
Kids take forever to do things.
Sure, they have the freedom to be able to waste a lot of time, but as an adult, you don’t. Only when you realise how much progress you can make with a new skill (in this case, learning Mandarin) in a limited time do you realise how much time you’ve wasted in your life.
It’s true that progress in Mandarin Chinese largely correlates with overall time spent with the language, but many of us underestimate how much free time we have in a day that we can use to learn a language – time that kids would never dream of spending productively.
The journey to work. Waiting for the bus. Our lunchtime. Couch time after a day at work. Taking a poop.
All of these minutes add up to a considerable amount of time that could be spent learning.
Let’s look at some ways you can utilise your limited free time to learn Mandarin Chinese.
Use Your Phone
I know that there’s a strong argument that we spend too much time on our phone as it is, but learning Mandarin is something you shouldn’t feel guilty about using it for.
You always have your phone, and there is a stupendous amount of quality Mandarin learning apps and resources you can use on it. I’d say more than half of the Mandarin I know has come as a result of using my phone.
For a list of the best-recommended Mandarin learning apps and resources, check out the following posts:
- The 21 Best Apps For Learning Mandarin Chinese
- 57 of the Best YouTube Channels for Learning Mandarin Chinese
- The 5 Best Apps For Learning To Write Chinese Characters
- Learn Chinese for FREE | Free Apps, Sites, Courses, and Media
- Can you Learn Chinese by Studying Only 5 Minutes a Day?
SRS (Spaced Repetition Software) has been a game-changer in language learning. It has its critics, and it can become a fairly monotonous activity for many people, but you can learn a lot of characters quickly with this method.
Learning characters will be a large part of your Mandarin learning journey. SRS apps can also be used for something called sentence mining, which is a great way to learn speech patterns and new words in context.
I’ve written about good learning resources that utilise SRS here.
Extensive Reading and Listening
Obviously, it’s important for young people to learn through reading and listening, but as an adult, you have the advantage of self-motivation.
Kids find it very difficult to do things they don’t want to do. So do adults to an extent, but it’s just different.
We might prefer to eat a chocolate bar and watch TV, but we can bring ourselves to opening a Mandarin graded reader and reading for 30 minutes instead because we know it’s better for us.
Anyway, extensive reading and listening are the activities that will take you from a beginner to an advanced level long term.
For good reading materials, check out the following:
As adults, listening is easier for us to make time for. We can go about our day doing ‘adult things’ while we listen. Much of my time in the car is also used as listening practice. I like to listen to the Radio in Mandarin in the morning while I’m getting ready for work.
For good listening materials, check out the following:
- Learning Chinese: 15+ Listening Tools Perfect for Beginners
- 100+ Mandarin Learning Resources – Listening
- 100+ Podcasts for Learning Chinese | Beginner to Advanced Material
Is it Ever Too Late to Learn Mandarin?
I mean, technically, yes.
If you’re on your death bed, then I’m sorry. I strongly suspect you have other priorities.
However, there is absolutely nothing that tells us there’s a cut-off age for language learning.
A perfect example of someone who learns languages very effectively as a ‘mature’ human is the legendary polyglot Steve Kaufmann. He’s in his 80s, is fluent in around 20 languages, and continues to learn today.
As long as you have your mind, you can learn a language at any age.
Learning Mandarin Chinese to a native level is possible if you begin learning the language as an adult. Science tells us it’s possible, and there are plenty of people who’ve done it.
There are advantages to starting to learn a language as early as possible. As an adult, you will learn differently from a child.
However, with sustained desire and a love for the language, you will be able to do the most important thing when it comes to learning a language: spending time with the language. This is something that can be done at any age.
- 100+ MANDARIN LEARNING RESOURCES: THE FASTEST WAY TO FLUENCY
- THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO LEARNING CHINESE IN CHINA
- THE 25 BEST MANDARIN STUDY RESOURCES FOR BEGINNERS
- 14 REASONS WHY YOU SHOULD LEARN MANDARIN CHINESE
- IS IT EASY TO LEARN MANDARIN CHINESE?
- STUDYING MANDARIN AT A UNIVERSITY IN CHINA: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW