Am I too old to learn a language?
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Annyeonghaseyo. Welcome to the Five Week Language Show. Today, I want to answer a question that I get from people so often and it’s, am I too old to learn a language? And I think it’s such an interesting question, and I want to talk about the research in a very simple way, and then I want to talk about what that means for people.
So there are a lot of myths out there. I want to call the myths for the most part, that it’s harder for adults to learn languages. And it just isn’t entirely untrue. But I want to start with the very basic research about how people become proficient in second languages. And that’s the work of Dr. Stephen Krashen, and he has five theories of language acquisition. And he calls it acquisition. And one of the first theories, learning acquisition.
Am I too old to learn a language? – acquisition
So language acquisition is mostly how you mastered your first language, or it’s a huge part of mastering a second, third, fourth, et cetera, language. And it’s those things that you naturally pick up because you understood them.
Imagine your parents reading to you or sitting in a classroom and being read to, watching movies, listening to songs, that natural immersion. And you’re not thinking about the grammar that’s being presented to you. You’re not thinking about patterns. You’re just understanding the content. The communication.
Am I too old to learn a language – learning
Learning are the really deliberate things that people do. And you did this also if you were educated in your first language or in any language, you’ve done this too, where you’ve learned parts of speech and grammar and patterns. You’ve done exercises, really deliberate activities, focused on overlearning patterns, et cetera.
So there are lots of theories about that children are better language learners. And I want to say there’s one study. I wish I could remember it. Between the languages, after 14, basically people can’t learn languages. And we know that that’s not true.
So I want you to think about the life of a child compared to the life of an adult. Children are often put in situations, right? They live in a certain country with a family that speaks a certain language, and they have certain activities and certain ways of being exposed to that language. It could be through their church they’re learning certain things, or their place of worship, or their not place of worship, science, perhaps. Think about all the different experiences that a person would have. Think about a family that might move from one country to another. And they’re speaking one language at home and another language at school.
Bottom line, children do learn from their environment, and it’s the environment that we put them in. And they tend to do this over a really long period of time. So it takes kids a couple of years to master what we call BICS, which is interpersonal talking to people, essentially. And then they might appear to be fluent in the language, because they are, they’re fluent speakers. But to get that same level of academic ability in a language usually takes about five to seven years. So it’s a long time.
Children also do really well with accents. And I think that that’s physiological, just being able to hear certain sounds and mimic them, and have them be natural to a person. I really believe that that has a huge part of things.
Think about your life as an adult. As an adult, you’re working, you have a family. You got responsibilities. Do you have seven hours a day to go be immersed in a classroom? Probably not. So I would say that that is one of the huge fundamental differences, is that adults don’t get the amount of time and exposure into learning languages.
I want to say that adults have some really distinct advantages in learning languages. So, adults have attention and focus that children just don’t. An adult can decide, I really want to learn Spanish for my job, for example, or Italian, to be able to speak to my partner’s parents from Italy, for example, or grandparents. An adult can sit down and understand how that equates to self-improvement. They’ve got their frontal lobe is developed, whereas a child’s is not. And they can carve time out to go to a class, to take a class online, whatever that might look like, that a child just won’t. But they only have so much time to do that because you’re living your life, right?
Adults also have the distinct advantage of having a lot of knowledge, already. Being able to read something, for example, about something you know really well, is a great way to learn languages. So think about some of our, I’ll use fairytales as an example. It’s pretty easy to pick up Little Red Riding Hood in French and understand the story because you already know the story, and it’s a really easy way to pick up vocabulary. And I’m picking this very simple example, even though children’s books can be deceptively difficult for language learners, as far as structures.
My point is that you could pick up anything that you’re interested in and that you have expertise in, and easily soak up new languages through it, because you understand the content really well.
Adults have huge vocabularies compared to children. So you have a huge understanding already, and it’s easier to make connections. If you have ever done anything like the SAT, for example, a lot of those words have Latin roots, and you’ll have a understanding, Spanish or French or Italian, that very common vocabulary that tends to come from Latin, is not difficult.
Children also have more different things that they might be taught in their classes. Thinking all the way from early primary school up to secondary school, you might be working on mathematics and science. Whereas an adult can focus on a couple of things.
I think there was a study done by MIT that says that adults are actually better language learners than children. And I want to say they made a cutoff date of, or age rather, of 17 years and four months. After that time, people had a really difficult time mastering grammar like a native. And I do believe that, but I also believe this goes back to my point in that adults really just haven’t had the opportunity of a long sequence of time to master a language the way that many children do.
The article also points out something that is really speaks to, I think, a really basic thing that we all need to understand about languages, is that learning acquisition, that’s Dr. Stephen Krashen’s theory.
So spending time on acquisition, as much as you can. So soaking up things, just like a child would. So listening, watching TV, listening to people, taking classes, listening to music, listening to reading books, reading magazines that you enjoy, soaking, acquiring language, right? Soaking it up, playing games in your target language, for example, and spending a little bit of time learning. Because you did that in your own language, right? So focusing on spending less time learning, because it’s not as effective, but it’s important, on learning activities for languages. So think grammar and classes and structures, some really deliberate activities to help you learn the language.
Lastly, I want to talk about health and languages, which I talk about a lot. I had the most amazing opportunity to meet Dr. Thomas Bak. And he was a professor in Cambridge where I live, in the UK, for many years and he’s an MD. And he also has a PhD in aphasia, and he’s fascinated with languages. He grew up in Krakow, Poland, and then went with Polish father and German mother, I believe, and then went on to study German and practiced, I think medicine, maybe in Austria or Germany for many years. He was really fascinated with languages, basically, and cognitive neuroscience, how the brain works. And he participated in a study that showed that people with more than one language tended to have an onset of dementia four to five years later than people who are monolingual. And it’s a really fascinating study done in Hyderabad, India.
But one of my interesting takeaways from our interview was, he was saying that, not only are the health benefits possible the older you are, you’re never too old, they’re even better.
So this goes back to adults being better learners than children, or children being better learners than adults. This sort of back and forth. Basically, are you too old to ever learn a language? And he had said that, he used an analogy of a tennis player. So he said, “If you started playing tennis at 50, the likelihood that you’d end up a champion player, kind of Wimbledon quality, it’s probably not going to happen. However, exercising is really beneficial at that age, isn’t it? And learning a new skill. Language is the same way. You may not be a world famous orator, but it’s certainly good for you. And the benefits are, the brain benefits that you can get are even better the older that you are.”
So in closing, it is never too late to learn a language. You just need to have time. And I want to share a few tips.
First of all, be realistic. You’re probably not going to be able to quit your job and take a year off to go study a language, which I think a lot of people would love to do, not working, enriching yourself, traveling the world, but that’s just not realistic for most of us. Maybe a short period of time like that. But for the most part, no. That doesn’t mean that you can’t carve out a half an hour a day to work on languages. And I have some materials, the 25 easy ways to learn every day.
Secondly, back to the tennis discussion. Do you enjoy activity? Do you enjoy doing something? Think about that. Do you enjoy walking? Maybe that can become your language learning time. Do you enjoy art? What do you enjoy reading? About sports, about history? Incorporate that into your language learning time.
Variety. I change up what I’m doing with languages every five weeks. And that’s a whole story. There’s a whole story behind it. But the takeaway for you is please don’t do the same thing, have consistency in your routine, of some kind, but don’t do the same thing over and over because you’ll get bored and you’ll give up. So the five weeks keeps me accountable. I always have language somewhere in my life, even if it’s just a short amount of time every day. But then I always have something fresh to look forward to. So I’m about to do five weeks of italki, because I can’t go to Italy this summer, and I’m really excited. I’m meeting some new tutors online, and we’re going to do conversation for half an hour early in the morning. I’m so excited. And then after my next five weeks, I’m not quite sure. I was really hoping this five weeks would be in Italy, but I’m making the most of it not being, because of the pandemic. I can’t be there.
You’re never too old to learn a language, and you can get started today. Until next time.