Can Older Adult Learners Acquire New Languages?
I often hear this question from adult learners. Sometimes my followers on Youtube, Facebook, or Twitter bring this up. In fact, not so long ago I had the following request from one of my followers.
“I want to do some research on the problems of older language learners and see what I can do to help them.”
I replied by asking. “What do you consider to be an older language learner?” His answer “over 40”.
“Well”, I replied, “what makes you think that people over 40 have particular problems in language learning? What do you think these problems might be?” His answer, “Well, you know, they might develop hearing loss or something of that nature.”
I must say, 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. In fact, I am over 70. I think I’m a better language learner now than I was when I was 16.
All the evidence I’ve seen is that our cognitive abilities don’t really start to decline until well past the mid 70s. If we work hard at maintaining these cognitive abilities, by keeping our minds active, I’m sure that our cognitive abilities and our ability to create new neurons and neural networks remain quite strong, certainly strong enough to keep on learning languages.
Now, I don’t know enough to compare the language learning ability of the average 60-year-old with the average 15-year-old. It does seem, at least anecdotally, that children below the age of 10, if immersed in the language, surrounded by people speaking the language, just seem to soak it up. They seem to perform better than older people, their parents for example, if they are immigrants.
It may well be that physiologically, as a very young child, the brain is more flexible. The brain hasn’t hardened or solidified around one language so it’s much more open to new languages. It may be easier for the young brain to form new neural patterns to accommodate a new language.
As we grow older we have more experience to draw on
The older learner is at a disadvantage when it comes to immersing oneself into a new language environment. The child immigrant has much weaker connections to another language or cultural space and just unselfconsciously interacts with the new language group. His parents, typically, have friends from the old country, and connections to the old country, and so their immersion is less complete. And maybe their brains are not quite as flexible. Certain patterns are already firmly in place around the old language.
The positive side of this is that as older language learners we have established patterns. We have more life experience to draw on. We have more wisdom, in a sense. We have more words and more concepts in our own language that help us in acquiring words in the new language. We can turn this to our advantage if we are motivated.
In fact, motivation rather than age is the key factor determining success. A lot of older people are quite motivated to learn languages, and as long as they don’t convince themselves that they can’t learn, and as long as they study in an enjoyable and interesting way, they can achieve a lot. In fact, they can achieve a high level in a language more quickly than a child.
Many young people, unless they are just immersed in a new language, are not that interested in language learning and often don’t do well. This has been the case with school language learning in many countries. When I take part in polyglot conferences in different places around the world, I meet people of all ages. Most of them didn’t develop their interest in languages, nor learn their languages, as little children.
Hearing loss and other cognitive decline
As for hearing loss, amongst my friends I don’t know many who suffer from this.
You do lose the sort of high-frequency range of hearing, but not to the point where it would affect your ability to hear the language. Of course, there are some people with hearing aids who have developed significant hearing loss. I have a very good friend who’s 83 and has a hearing aid. He doesn’t hear very well, but he’s very enthusiastic, learning Spanish and having a great time. Language learning involves so many skills, hearing acuity is not the defining quality of a successful language learner. I once met a deaf person who had taught himself 13 languages.
The older we get, the harder it is to learn
Even though I am quite convinced that attitude is much more important than age in language learning, it seems I am fighting against conventional wisdom.
I hear these negative views about older language learners all the time. I was at a meetup the other evening here in Vancouver. It was styled as a meetup of language enthusiasts and linguists and someone made the statement, “We all know that our ability to learn a language declines with age. The older we get, the harder it is to learn. “
I said, “No, I’m sorry, that’s not been my experience.”
Their response was, “Well, I mean you can’t say that. Everybody knows the older you get, the harder it is to learn a language.”
There are a lot of people who glibly toss these ideas around and, unfortunately, I think it influences some people, even those just past their 30s. They think they can’t learn a language anymore. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Take my wife, for example, who’s so enthusiastic about her piano she plays two-three hours a day. She doesn’t have a teacher, but she’s improving by leaps and bounds. I mean we can learn anything we want at any age, as long as we have the attitude of a learner. The attitude of a learner is that of someone who is independent, who doesn’t expect someone else to teach them or to give it to them, who’s enthusiastic, who’s confident and who is determined to get there. Successful learners also aren’t too concerned about comparing themselves to other people.
My wife plays the piano. She doesn’t care whether she’s better than someone else. I know very well that there are all kinds of polyglots on the Internet that are better than I am in a number of languages, if not all. That doesn’t diminish my enjoyment one little bit. Every one of us, younger or older language learners, whatever our age, and whatever our opportunities to speak, can all enjoy the process. All we need is to achieve that little bit of progress that gives us a sense of satisfaction and keeps us going. We don’t have to compare ourselves to anyone else.
Unfortunately, I think there is a prejudice against older language learners, and sometimes older learners subscribe to this prejudice to give themselves an excuse. As a result some adult learners give up on the possibility that they could learn one, two or more languages to quite a high level of fluency.
I have learned eight or nine languages since the age of 60. I am working on Arabic and Farsi right now and don’t intend to stop. I would never have considered any of this possible when I was in my 20s. My attitude towards language learning has changed. I know I can do it. More people past the age of 40 need to have the “can do” attitude.