Older Language Learners
Can older language learners succeed?
I would like to talk about older language learners. When using Facebook, Twitter and now Google Plus I see posts from people I am following or that are following me. Recently I saw a post there from someone saying, I want to do some research on the problems of older language learners and see what I can do to help them. So I posted a comment and said, what do you consider to be an older language learner and he answered over 40. So I said, what makes you think that people over 40 have particular problems in language learning. What do you think these problems might be? The answer was 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. 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 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.
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 obviously a child before the age of say 10 seems to have a major advantage in language learning and there are probably a number of reasons. I think as a very young child, of course, the brain is still flexible enough. The brain hasn’t sort of formed around one language so it’s much more open to new languages because, necessarily, the brain has to form patterns. It has to form rules for itself so it can deal with all the experiences and the phenomena that it’s confronted with.
As we grow older we have more experience to draw on
The positive side of this is that as older language learners we have more patterns in place. We have more experience to draw on. We have more wisdom, in a sense. We’ve experienced more things, but we perhaps become less open to new things. I think that’s what happens in language learning, we’re open to any language. When we’re born, we could learn any language as a native language and as we develop therefore these sets of patterns to deal with our native language. We perhaps become less open to new languages as older language learners. I think young people who study two or three languages have a big advantage, but once you pass the age of 10 or so I think the brain is more or less formed, from what I’ve read.
By the way, the majority of teens are not that interested in language learning and don’t do well, the majority that I’ve seen at least in Canada. On the other hand, for example at LingQ and on the recent hangouts that I’ve been conducting in Google Plus, we’ve had some young people show up who are extremely good language learners. I think some of the more enthusiastic so-called polyglots (people learning different languages) probably are 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 are the sort of attitudinal factors that enable them to be successful and there’s no reason why older language learner can’t have the same attitude. I like to feel that when I study a language I am totally enthusiastic about the language. I put in the time necessary. I don’t resist the language. I don’t question why do they say it this way and wouldn’t it be better if they said it the way we say it in our language, none of these things. I think, to some extent, it may be true that some older learners do this, but I think young people do this, as well.
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.
Older language learners 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, not resisting the language, if they can visualize themselves speaking that other language, if they have these attitudes, they can be just as good as anyone else.
The older we get, the harder it is to learn.
Again, 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.
It’s not just older language learners. If I look at 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 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 and, also, someone who isn’t too concerned about comparing themselves to other people.
Now, 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 and older language learners, whatever our age, and whatever our opportunities to speak, can all enjoy the progress we’re making. That’s all we need to achieve that little bit of progress that gives us a sense of satisfaction. We don’t have to compare ourselves to anyone else.
Unfortunately, I think there is a bit of a prejudice and one that works to the disadvantage of older language learners who 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, except that I had learned Russian in the previous year. I would never have considered that possible when I was in my 20s; you know, putting in an hour or an hour and a half or so, eventually two hours a day. The reason is, again, as we’re older and as we’ve done these things, we get better at doing them. We know how to do them. Again, the brain develops these patterns, these routines so that it’s no longer a new phenomenon.
Someone who has never learned a second language or has only had school exposure to French or grew up in China and learned English for 10 years and can’t speak English, I mean they have no sense of what it’s like to transform themselves into a speaker 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, I don’t see any difference between a 16-year-old and a 66-year-old.