Are You Too Old To Learn A New Language?

I recently saw a social media post that read, “I want to do some research on the problems of older language learners and see what I can do to help them”. So I replied, “What do you consider to be an older language learner?” The answer: over 40. I inquired further, “What makes you think that people over 40 have particular problems in language learning? What do you think these problems might be?” The response I got was, “Well, you know, they might develop hearing loss or something of that nature.”

I was completely taken aback by this comment. I don’t know that over 40 qualifies as old, but I assume that over 60 does. That’s me. I think I’m a better language learner now than I was when I was 16. All the evidence I’ve seen in the reading I’ve done is that our cognitive abilities don’t really start to decline until well past the mid-seventies. If we work hard at maintaining these cognitive abilities by keeping our minds active, I’m sure that our ability to create new neurons and neural networks remains quite strong.

Now, I can’t compare the ability of the average 60-year-old with the average 15-year-old, but everything I’ve seen suggests to me that a child before the age of around 10 seems to have a major advantage in language learning, and there are a number of reasons. As a very young child, of course, the brain is still flexible. It hasn’t formed around one language, so it’s much more open to new languages. The brain has to form patterns and rules for itself so it can deal with all the experiences and the phenomena that it’s confronted with.

The positive side of this is that as we grow older we have more patterns in place. We have more experience to draw on. We have more wisdom, in a sense. We’ve experienced more, but we perhaps become less open to new things. I think that’s what happens in language learning. When we’re born, we could learn any language as a native language. As we develop sets of patterns to deal with our native language, we perhaps become less open to new languages. I think young people who study two or three languages have a big advantage, but once you pass the age of 10 or so the brain is more or less formed, from what I’ve read.

The majority of teens are not that interested in language learning and don’t do well; the majority that I’ve seen in at least . On the other hand, some young people are extremely enthusiastic. Some of the most enthusiastic so-called polyglots (people learning different languages) are most likely younger, but it’s their enthusiasm and their willingness to put in the time and the effort and the fact that they aren’t resisting the language that leads to their success.

These attitudinal factors enable them to be successful, and there’s no reason why an older person can’t have the same attitude. When I study a language I am totally enthusiastic about that language. I put in the time necessary. I don’t resist the language. I don’t ask “Why do they say it this way?” or wonder “Wouldn’t it be better if they said it the way we say it in our language?” It may be true that some “older” people do this, but I think young people do, too.

As for hearing loss, yes, people can lose the sort of high-frequency range of hearing, but not to the point where it would affect their ability to hear the language. Now, there are people with hearing aides who have developed significant hearing loss. I have a very good friend who’s 83 and has a hearing aide. He doesn’t hear very well, but he’s very enthusiastically learning Spanish and having a great time.

Old people aren’t in any way disadvantaged. Older people, whether over 40 as this person had it or over 60, are not handicapped people. In terms of their cognitive abilities, they’re just as good as younger people if they have the same attitude. If they have the attitude of not resisting the language, being caught up in the excitement of learning a new language, visualizing themselves speaking that language. If they have these attitudes, they can be just as good as anyone else.

There are a lot of people who glibly toss the idea that older people cannot learn a new language around and, unfortunately, I think it influences some people who are past their thirties. They think they can’t learn a language anymore. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Unfortunately, I think these prejudices make some people give up on the possibility that they could learn one, two or more languages past their teens. I can assure you, I learned Czech from basically a standing start. I would never have considered that possible when I was in my twenties. The reason was that I had done it before so I got better at doing it. I know how to do it. Again, the brain develops these patterns, these routines so that it’s no longer a new phenomenon.

People who have never learned a second language or have only had school exposure to French or grew up in China and learned English for 10 years and can’t speak English, have no sense of what it’s like to transform themselves into speakers of a second language. They have an attitude. They’re defeated before they start. But that’s the attitude, that’s not the age. If they accept the fact that they can learn, that it’s a gradual process and you have to do it with enthusiasm and determination, there is no difference between a 16-year-old and a 66-year-old.

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About Steve Kaufmann