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Am I too old to learn a new language?

Remember learning your mother tongue? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could master new languages just as effortlessly? You can… if you have ten years to spare and nothing else competing for your attention.

Adult language learning

The truth is that you’re unlikely to have the opportunity to spend a decade exclusively on language learning, just as you’re unlikely to be spoon-fed apple sauce by your mother again. The truth is, with just a little effort, the right tools, and the proper motivation, adults learn a new language in a fraction of the time it takes a child.

But doesn’t ability drop off with age?

Since children naturally pick up sounds, accents, and phonemes at a very early age, most people intuitively believe the ideal age for learning a language is usually before puberty. But contrary to popular belief, adults are actually better language learners than children.

Theories such as the critical period hypothesis, which says language is best learnt before puberty, have largely been disproved, and new research shows that it’s never too late to learn a foreign language. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence abounds to confirm these findings—including a number of LinguaLift users well into their 80s who are making steady progress towards fluency.

Neuroplasticity… or time management?

Modern theories of learning rely on something called neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to alter its connection pathways and store new information. Our brains do become less flexible with age though, which may explain why it seems more difficult to learn as we age.

Our brains never lose the ability to learn new things. We just run out of time!

Children, and especially babies, have more time to develop skills like language. It’s integrated into their day and they don’t have other responsibilities to think about. When adults have the same freedom by taking time off school or work to study a language intensely, many of them learn as fast or even faster than young children.

The bottom line? Our brains never lose the ability to learn new things. We just run out of time!

Statistics don’t lie

The power of adult learning is also supported by recent science. Researchers at Stanford and York Universities decided to test the critical period hypothesis by looking at data on the English proficiency of immigrants to the US from Chinese- and Spanish-speaking countries.

The data showed that although English proficiency did diminish as the age of immigration increased—someone who immigrated at 60 was less likely to be as proficient as someone who immigrated at 12—there was no sharp cut-off point between childhood and adulthood. In fact, education level played a much bigger role than age, again suggesting that time or other social factors can be more important than age.

The wisdom of age

It’s true that children don’t have to sit in a class or study to learn languages, and it’s possible for them to pick up multiple languages at once. But realistically, children listen to and observe people speaking for years before they form sentences themselves, and it can take a decade or more for a full vocabulary to develop.

Adults already understand how language works and are often more motivated to develop their vocabulary than children or teens.

Adults already understand how language works and are often more motivated to develop their vocabulary than children or teens, which can make for a much more rewarding learning experience. It may take a little longer or more focused study, but because adults already understand some of the contextual and theoretical links between language and meaning across a variety of different topics, they have many advantages that children do not.

How do adults learn?

Successfully learning a language as an adult requires letting go of the methods used in schools and employing modern technology instead. Tools like Spaced Repetition work extremely well for older learners who know how to stick with a project. Adults also frequently have more access to real-world practice opportunities including radio and television programs, magazines and newspapers, and conversations with native speakers.

  • Treat the new language like a puzzle and pay particular attention to grammar. It may be more difficult for adult brains to pick up structural differences between languages as the patterns of the first language are so strongly embedded. For some learners, it’s worth spending time getting to know the basics of structure alongside vocabulary, although others find it easy to develop these patterns simply from listening to and practising the language.
  • Be patient and learn gradually. Studies have shown that adults learn best when exposed to new ideas slowly, over time. Spaced Repetition Systems are perfect for this as they customize the learning speed to an individual learner’s natural pace.
  • Put it in context. Take advantage of the breadth of adult knowledge and try to speak with native speakers, listen to local radio, or read books and magazines in the new language. This compounds the motivation effect, because successfully understanding something can help adults focus on how much they’re learning, rather than on any mistakes.

Rethink fluency

If children do have an advantage, it may be in the development of their accents, one of the traditional hallmarks of fluency. Most adults will never sound exactly like a native in their second language (although it is possible—consider the many actors and actresses who successfully change their accents to succeed in Hollywood). But really, most adults do not need to sound exactly like natives in another language. They simply need to be able to communicate clearly and with confidence, and this is certainly possible at any age with the right motivation.

Most adults just need to communicate clearly and with confidence, not speak exactly like natives. This is certainly possible at any age with the right motivation.

This is good news, because in the end, one of the biggest advantages adults have over children when it comes to learning a language is a sense of purpose. Children may pick up languages intuitively and with fewer inhibitions, but adults usually have a reason for learning that can sustain their motivation beyond a few years of school.

It may be in order to communicate with loved ones or do business in a foreign country. It might simply be for the pleasure and challenge of learning something new. Regardless, it’s crucial to remember that life experience contributes to learning rather than diminishing it.

It’s time to put to rest the myths of miraculous childhood learning and take advantage of the power of adult learning.

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