If you told me that you would like to start mountain climbing at the age of eighty, I might suggest that you should try something safer. If you told me that at sixty-five, you would like to become a professional ballet dancer, I might suggest another musical pursuit. But if you told me, at the age of fifty, you’re too old to learn a new language, I would strongly disagree.
In general, people with a healthy mind (have good short and long-term memory) and who are patient, can learn a new language at almost any age. Some people, even at forty, think they’re too old to learn a new language. They’re wrong! And I am going to tell you why:
One question we can’t answer is how we define “old”. Some people say that “old” is being ten to fifteen years older than their current age.
The older brain has a lot of capacity to learn new things
We used to think the human brain just stopped growing after a certain age (actually younger than you think, like in your thirties). But research has shown that the brain, (even in its fifties to seventies) is constantly changing and adapting to new experiences. True, the older you get, this adaptability decreases over time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a new language.
Will learning a new language prevent or slow down the onset of dementia - a serious brain disorder that causes people to lose their memory, their abilities to carry out regular routines and to eventually not recognize their closest family members and friends. The truth is that we don’t really know, despite a lot of research on the subject. Many scientists believe that learning any new mental task makes the brain keep fit just as working out with weights keeps you strong. Others don’t totally agree. But your main reason for learning a new language should not be to prevent brain disease; it should be that you want to learn a new language because you just want to.
What do you want to learn?
Before we discuss the advantages and difficulties in learning a new language when you’re older, think about what you want to learn. For example:
- Do you want the new language to help you as a tourist?
- Do you like the idea of mastering a new language to talk to with native speakers in your own country?
- For a new job?
- Or will it be just a fun hobby?
These questions are important because they determine how much of a new language you want to learn.
To some people, becoming bilingual is not that important; they would rather learn enough to carry on a decent conversation in a new language. If you want to write well in your new language then this will take some extra time and effort.
So before you start learning a new language, think of your goals: understanding and speaking, or reading and writing, or maybe all of these.
The good and the “bad news” of being an older student
If I told you that there are no differences in how older and younger people learn a new language, I’d be lying. “Older people have larger vocabularies than younger ones, so the chances are your vocabulary will be as large as a native’s," says Albert Costa, a professor of linguistics, at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona.
But older people may have more trouble with grammar and syntax, says the professor. Most older people will have trouble with pronunciation because they haven’t had the early exposure as younger people have had, to absorb the sounds or words of the new language.
But, an advantage for older people is time. If retired or working part-time, older students, fortunately, have more time to devote to learning a new language than their younger peers. Younger people in school must attend to several other classes; they have less time or energy to devote to learning a new language exclusively.
The same holds true with younger people who are starting careers and/or families. Midlife holds the same responsibilities plus, perhaps, caring for elderly relatives. By the time people reach their fifties, they think they’re too old too learn a new language. But for the older people who do take on a new language, they know how untrue that is.
What you need to start
Older people have one distinct advantage that younger people do not have: experience. By the time you’re a mature adult, you’ve learned how to learn. You’ve learned what works for you and what doesn’t with learning something new. You get less frustrated with language mistakes because you know they’re a part of life, not just with a new language. And older people have what many younger people lack: patience.
The main thing you need at any age to learn a new language is motivation. And this is one area where older people lack. If you don’t think you can do something, you won’t. Younger people often have more motivation than older people because a new language is required at school or work or to flaunt / show off their achievements.
But older people have the opportunity to choose the language they want to learn. It may seem impractical; they won’t necessarily visit the country where the language is spoken. But they do have the choice to start learning the language and then dropping it if they don’t like it. In addition, they may have more money to spend on learning a new language than people in their thirties and forties. Older folks may be able to travel more, stay longer in the county of their new language, and immerse themselves in the language and culture.
What older people, who are learning a new language, do need is support from their family and friends. They need to be encouraged; not ridiculed for being “too old to learn”. If they don’t get support from family, then they must seek it out from other like-minded people. Take a course with a friend, or find a language club that includes beginners. Even better, sign up with an italki teacher.
The main thing is motivation. And no one can do this for you. So stop regretting not learning a new language. Stop believing you’re too old. Build up that courage and start learning the language you’ve always wanted to!
Ilene Springer is a long-time italki teacher specializing in advanced language students. She is a writer and author of The Diary of an Expatriate (AUK, London). Visit her website at Chocolate English.eu.