Older Language Learners

the_older_language_learner

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.”

older language learners

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.

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30 comments on “Older Language Learners

Ryan Santiago

I must agree with you on this. Well, I am not exactly old (24 years old) but, through the years, I have experienced time and again that I have been getting better at language learning as the years pass by. Children become fluent in their native language after 6-7 years of full immersion in a single language and, often, they still make mistakes. As adults, we are able to decipher patterns better. Case in point, I self-studied Spanish for barely 8 months and native speakers are often surprised that I can speak like a native. 8 months is nowhere near 6 years.

Also, I think the reason why those brain scans show deterioration in cerebral capacity is that, generally, as people get older, they become less open-minded and more disinterested in other things (or at least that´s what their situations push them to become). Naturally, the brain would deteriorate. Of course, it´s truly biologically possible for the brain to shrink over the years. Neurons are cells, after all, and like any other cell, they age. But if one takes good care of his brain by adopting a resilient attitude in language learning, I don´t think there would be significant decline in brain power even after 70. I have many 70-year-old relatives and they are as sharp as teenagers.

Michael Ullock

I belong to a large group of over 70 year old french language learners that meet for conversation, singing, dancing and eating all things french. We are located in Mission, BC and meet once a week. None of appear to suffer from any learning issues.
Keep up your good work…Michel

Antonio

Hi Steve
This is a very interesting post. I am 48 and moved to Australia from South America when I was 44. At that time I had an intermediate level of English so I had to start doing an extra effort to understand while talking mainly because I had studied American English and Australian accent is a little bit different.
It was two years ago when I met your videos in you tube and I have to tell you that they have been very useful for me. By the way, at what age did you learn Spanish? Let me tell you that your Spanish is perfect with a native pronunciation. Thanks for your videos and blog.

    I traveled a great deal in Spain in the mid 60’s on my holidays. I was a student in France. Spent many hours in conversation with Spanish truck drivers and others who picked me up hitch-hiking. Recently I have been reading more in Spanish to get a larger vocabulary. I did a few of the audio books that we have at LingQ by Pérez Galdós, listening and reading and saving words and phrases. Have also read books by Ruiz Zafón and others. Reading is great for language learning.

I’m 75 and I’m still learning Italian, because I like it. I can not travel, RAI in my country blocks their VODs, so it is not easy to maintain the motivation. But I have very good volunteer teacher Alberto Arrighini, so the learning goes easy.
I confirm what you say: learning Italian is for me less difficult than learning German at the age 14. But the reasons are not in brain, they are mostly external. Methods of learning, due to internet resources (much better for German than for Italian).
Internal too: the mind is better trained to learn another language than the first foreign one. My teachers at school (Poland 1950 – 57) were competent in languages, but not in the teaching methods.
The mind is a mystery…

    Great stuff and please keep it up. I am really enjoying learning about Poland through listening and reading to things I was able to buy from Publio.pl

Andrea

The attitude of the learner and a multimodal approach are key factors in the success for learning a language. My attitude and the traditional teaching approach during my youth were clearly the problems in my acquisition of a second language. Repeated failures and the belief that I was a visual learner left me with feelings that a foreign language was a skill beyond me. Then at age 60, when the frustration caused by my inability to understand a book written in archaic Swedish for genealogical research was too much, I relented and gave language learning another try. This motivation was enough to change my attitude and preconceived ideas. Enthusiastic and fearless I used a copyrighted program supplemented with language techniques I had used in my classroom teaching days to come up with a balanced multimodal curriculum. A multimodal approach teaches to a student’s various modes of learning – primarily visual, auditory and tactile through pictures, reading, writing, listening, speaking using a variety of materials such as films, journals, rewriting comic strips, labeling or describing magazine pictures, email correspondence etc. Admiring the fearlessness and perseverance of the deaf students I once taught who could not even hear the language they were learning to speak, I surprised myself by discovering that although I had just wanted to learn to read Swedish, now I actually enjoyed conversing too! Then my dream to go to the rural village where my ancestors had lived which was also described in that archaic Swedish book came true. There the motivation for learning a new language was realized when I had the confidence and ability to knock on a strangers door, be invited into their home, discuss genealogy and then discover we were related! Clearly motivation, attitude and learning techniques are critical to language acquisition.

Itziar

Tengo 48 años y estoy disfrutando de aprender idiomas desde hace 3 más o menos. Cuando era adolescente me gustaban mucho los idiomas pero después, durante muchos años, no estudié casi nada. Cuando retomé esta aficcion hace 3 años al principio me costaba bastante y era algo frustante no recordar las cosas, pero con el tiempo he visto que mi capacidad para retener a mejorado mucho. Pienso que más que una cuestión de edad, se trata de falta de costumbre, si el cerebro está desentrenado cuesta más.
Además tengo que decir que disfruto mucho más de los idiomas que aprendo por mi cuenta que de los que aprendo yendo a clases. Aunque mis clases de chino me gustaban mucho porque la profesora era muy buena, me frustraba bastante ver que mis compañeros no avanzaban y aunque algunos pensaban que era porque eran mayores yo creo que se debía a que no asumian la responsabilidad y esperaban a que la profesora “les enseñara”. Si asumimos la responsabilidad, la experiencia en aprender idiomas nos da ventaja sobre los que han dedicado menos años.
Por cierto, Steve, por curiosidad, ¿sabes que edad tiene la persona del post que mencionas en el primer párrafo?

Peter

I applaud ALL older language learners.
In my view far too little attention is given to the likes of Latin,Hebrew, Farsi,Georgian, Basque, Irish etc.

alirıza erdoğan

I am 54 years old. I am a proffessor in anatomy department of (Dardanelss) Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart Universty, Medicine faculty in Turkiye.
I want work to New Zelland or Australian Medicine Faculty Anatomy Department.
İn that reason I have to fluently speaking english. But I can not solve this problem lonely.
İf you can help me, I thankfull you.
Best
Prof.Dr.Alirıza ERDOĞAN(Phd.MD.)

Agnieszka

I think it’s not only about learner’s attitude. It’s about believes of the environment they are part of and lack of confidence if the learner has never learned a language before. Even if they would want to learn new language they don’t really believe it’s possible for them, they’re not really ready to make a constant effort for a long time so they never really try hard enough. They often have no motivation because they don’t really feel the need to use the language in their daily life. Of course I don’t talk about everyone. I could just observe that things in my family and with my acquaintances. They are initially interested in learning language to have better job opportunities, they go to courses and… that’s all they do. Then they get discouraged because they see no progress/the progress is low. The only thing that might be a problem when you’re older and don’t know any foreign language is that you may be already convinced that it’s not for you, that you will never learn or that you don’t need it. The hard part is to tell yourself otherwise and see it through when you’ve never done that before and so many people around you start learning and then just gives up.

Carol

I am in my 50’s and learning Swedish here in Sweden and I sit in the classroom with people of many different ages, backgrounds and first languages.
I have noticed no real difference between us when it comes to age and how we learn.
I have noticed that those who were under 25 seemed to have a slight advantage in the beginning , but that could be that they were more familiar with sitting in a classroom and learning.
Also those that had learnt English as a second language seem to find Swedish easier to begin with and all the native English speakers I have spoken to seem to find it more difficult.
I feel I have found it no harder to learn than all my classmates and I am doing as well if not better than most and really enjoying it.
Tack så mycket Steve och jag tycker om att lasa alla av dina intressanta blogginläggen.

Katerina Chaloupkova

Milý Steve,
zdravím Vás z Prahy. Děláte skvělou práci. Lidé, kteří toho dělají nejméně, nejvíce kritizují.Podobně jako v článku o stigmatizování. Já sama jsem už také “stará”. Je mi 41 let:-). Pečuji o tři své děti, studuji na univerzitě – komunikaci a nová média, učím se anglicky a italsky – sluchátka mám na uších pořád. Když vařím, peru, chodím se psem ven. Také 6 let vášnivě studuji hru na cello. Brzy snad budu hrát v nějakém amatérském orchestru.
Výhodou středního věku je, že více umíme ocenit čas a jsme mnohem efektivnější. A sama můžu potvrdit, že intelektuální schopnosti cvikem jen rostou.
Třeba se někdy setkáme v Praze. Hodně zdraví! Kateřina

Jack Feka

At 71, I agree largely about the attitude of a learner being vital, but there are age-related issues that dimish my own capacity to concentrate and learn. I refer to decreasing visual capacity and other health issues which I have that I didn’t have when I was younger.

Apart from these I greatly enjoy learning new languages.

Christine.

Hi Steve,
Thanks for the interesting post. I am a native English speaker and at 61 learning Swedish, and loving it! I am doing extremely well, better in fact than I did at 15 learning French. The reason has nothing to do with age and everything to do with how interested you are in the subject. I learnt Chinese 10 years ago and conversed with my Chinese friend everyday at work. I have not used it for the last few years as I have been travelling in English speaking countries. Once I have Swedish under my belt I will refresh my Chinese. After that who knows, perhaps I will revisit French I was quite good at it without putting in much effort. Thanks again for the site and posts.
Kind regards,
Christine.

Ben

I totally agree that it’s more about your attitude than your age. Trained in economics I strive to be an autodidact, went to Japan to live for a year, became conversational in Japanese, programmed a site to help others in their Japanese grammar practice, have studied German/French/Spanish as well as specializing in quantitative econometrics in graduate school. It’s all in your attitude. If you believe you can, you can.

L.A. Foster

I agree with you that motivation is the most important part of learning. However, I’m 58 and I find it harder to memorize vocab than I did when I was in my 20’s and 30’s. My short-term memory was quite a bit better when I was younger, (I think, if I remember right )

LA

Nicolas Correa

Hello Steve,
I totally agree that the attitude towards learning is a vital element for the senior language learner. I am currentrly working in Uruguay within an institute setting teaching english as a foreign language to an elementary level group of 6 students. Even if the group was originally intended to be just for adults, my students` ages are: 14, 15, 16, 35, 61 and 80. Parallel to this, I`m carrying out a research project that has as a main question: “How do large age gaps between students affect classwork” with an emphasis on the senior learner and its implications for teaching. This research project will be a case study based on my elementary level group. Even though there is some research done on senior learners I`m having lots of problems finding previous research that adjusts to such a colorful setting. Taking into account all the previous aspects that I mentioned, can you please give me your insight on this or recommend any sites, forums or previous research I may want to get into?
Thanks for your inspiring posts.
Regards,
Nicolas.

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