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Am I too Old to Learn a Foreign Language? Adult Language Learners have a Surprising Advantage

Updated on December 29, 2016

We have all heard this mantra: “I’m too old to learn another language.” However, not only is every sound adult capable of learning a foreign language, he or she can also do so more quickly and efficiently than a child raised in a bilingual environment. Even monolingual school children who begin learning a foreign language at a very young age are at a disadvantage when compared with adult language enthusiasts.

Adults vs. Children

Children may be able to learn a language more intuitively and effortlessly, provided they are thoroughly immersed in the language in question, but the process takes much longer than it does for a determined adult student. It is no use comparing a baby’s ability to learn a language perfectly to an adult’s struggle with grammar principles, pronunciation, and vocabulary training because the way a baby learns its first language(s) is inherently different from the way that an adult learns a foreign language. A baby starts with no knowledge of society, culture, and language, while an adult already has all of this knowledge at his or her disposal while learning a new language. Although learning a language through immersion at a young age has its benefits, it is a very long process requiring the child to learn things intuitively that an adult can learn much more quickly on an intellectual level.

The fully-developed brain of an adult is simply more adept at intentional, self-driven learning than that of a child. As adults, we are much more able to think analytically and, most importantly, have a much more highly developed ability to think abstractly than children do. It is the capacity for abstract thought which is crucial to successful language learning as one attaches the same meaning to a foreign word and must also come to terms with direct translations that differ slightly in the target language.

An adult can much better manage his or her time and resources for the purposes of language learning. He or she is more equipped to acquire learning materials and is also in a better position to arrange to meet with native speakers of the target language online or in person and generally stay focused on the task at hand and set long term goals.

False Assumptions about Brain Plasticity

Some of you reading this may be thinking to yourselves, “well, that’s all fine and good for young adults, but what about us middle-age and senior folk? This dog’s too old to learn new tricks.” If you are thinking something along these lines, you could not be more wrong. The assumption that an aged brain is inherently less adept at learning a foreign language than a young brain is a self-fulfilling prophesy rather than scientific fact.

The assumption that brain plasticity diminishes with age is out-dated scientific rhetoric. Even after a person has achieved full physical and mental maturation, brain passages still maintain their capacity to be rewired by learning and honing new skills the practice and discipline. The only sense in which the brain “crystallizes” with age, is attitude. The older a person becomes, the easier it is to rest with the mental wiring he or she has established in youth. However, that is not to say that the brain of a retiree cannot, with effort, be rewired to play a musical instrument, take up a new sport, or, of course, learn a new language. If a mature adult has the interest and/or necessity to learn a foreign language, the only obstacle is a perceived lack of brain plasticity, rather than an actual lack thereof. Far too often is it the case that older people misinterpret the comfortable stations of habit for the loss of the intellectual capacity to think in a new way, as one must if one expects to excel in a foreign language.

It is human nature to stick with that which we are most comfortable, and there is nothing with which we are more comfortable than familiarity. The life-long attachment to one’s mother is directly related to one’s life-long attachment to his or her mother tongue. This becomes more and more true with age as we, typically, become more and more conservative. The only reason young adults seem more “talented” with foreign languages is not because their younger brains are more flexibly wired and innately better at learning, but because their youth, in general, makes them more open-minded and curious about new things.

It is a lack of open-mindedness rather than a lack of brain plasticity that stands as the greatest hindrance to language learning amongst older people. Thus, all you have to do in order to put yourself in a position to learn a new language is open your mind to something new and eschew old-fashioned assumptions about age and the capacity to learn.

Inspiring Personal Anecdotes

While studying, I encountered many professors in the humanities who, even in their 40s and 50s, were taking up new languages.

I have been in the foreign language business for many years now. While living in Germany, speaking fluent German, locals often assumed I had started at a very young age in order to speak so well a language they themselves considered particularly difficult. In reality, I had never spoken a word of German until I was 18.

While living in a Berlin neighbourhood that was once part of the former Eastern Germany, I encountered people whose only foreign language option in school was Russian and only recently began learning English on their own with impressive results. These are people between 40 and 70 years of age.

Young children may be more adept at learning a language through immersion and speak like native speakers, but this is a far lengthier and inefficient learning process when compared to that of an adult student with far more highly developed analytical and long-term planning capabilities. Furthermore, archaic and downright false assumptions about brain plasticity have discouraged older people from learning foreign languages for far too long.

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    • Glenis Rix profile image

      GlenR 6 weeks ago from UK

      I endorse your view that we are never too old to learn. I gained a grasp of Spanish at the age of fifty four, whilst commuting to work. At the age of sixty seven I took an Honours degree in English Literature after six years part time study with the Open University. Currently I am improving my Italian. However, I have to admit that my memory has declined over the years and I have to repeat things many times before they stick in my mind.

    • Spongy0llama profile image
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      Jake Brannen 2 years ago from Canada

      It just seems to be that certain misconceptions are perpetuated despite modern evidence to the contrary. Language learning is different when you become older. Children are more able to learn a language naturally and are more susceptible to immersion, but adults have a much greater capacity to learn a language academically and then, building upon theory, to further their learning through self-immersion. This is coming from someone who has experienced this first hand. I am fluent in German, even though I started at age 18 and I am now 25. I started French much later, and it already feels very intuitive to me, as though I had learned as a child! Never give up home, the adult brain retains more plasticity than archaic misconceptions would have you suppose! :)

    • Babbyii profile image

      Barb Johnson 2 years ago from Alaska's Kenai Peninsula

      Thanks Jake! What you say makes so much more sense than what we tend to believe about learning a foreign language. I recall reading long...ago that difficulties in foreign language learning begin after age twelve. It sure did discourage me. Glad to hear that isn't true. How often we hold onto errors and other lies, even after someone tries to tell us the truth.