The truth is, it is entirely possible, even easy to learn a language when you’re older. Studies are proving all the time that no matter what age, people are able to retain new vocabulary, learn new grammar structures and develop new ways of learning in general.
In fact, in many ways, older people have advantages over younger people when it comes to learning new languages. Think about it, how often do you give your kids or your grandkids advice based on your own personal experience? You know more because you’ve been through it all already, right? Well, the same goes for this. You already know how to learn, you have developed effective learning techniques, you’re capable of self-directing, and you can adapt to changes.
Here are five reasons to stop making excuses and accept the fact that you are never too old to learn a language:
1. Adults Learn Better and Faster than ChildrenYears ago, it was highly believed that once you hit 50, learning a new language becomes incredibly difficult. But new studies and research continue to prove that theory wrong every day. Adults not only have the ability to grasp a new language just as children do, but they can do it better and faster.
And, the age of the adult doesn’t change that. One study by Hakuta, Bialystok and Wiley compared the language learning abilities in adults of different ages. Each participant was taught the same words in the same learning environment. The results showed that people over 50 learn just as well as people in their 20s or 30s.
There are some aspects of language learning that become easier as you get older because you already have a lot of knowledge about it, even if you don’t think you do. Adults have a much larger vocabulary than children so that makes it easier to pick up hundreds or even thousands of new words in a very short time.
Older people, however, may have more difficulty learning grammar rules and syntax, or perfecting the accent than children. Sounds of a language are easier for children to pick up, but the actual vocabulary is far easier for an adult to learn since new words can be mapped quickly based on pre-existing knowledge.
2. The Key to Being a Successful Language Learner is Motivation, Not AgeWhile a child may have stronger powers of mimicry and retention, adults are still quite capable of absorbing new information. It just might take a little more motivation.
The advantage here is that adult learners typically want to learn, whereas children are forced to and therefore tend to tune out. Choosing to learn a new language as an adult should mean that you’re more enthusiastic about the lessons, making them easier to absorb.
Say you met someone and fell in love while traveling in a foreign country, or have a new job that requires international communication, or just think a language sounds beautiful, no matter what the circumstance, the motivation to learn will only help speed up the process.
3. An Older Brain is Just as Capable of Being Trained as a Younger OneAgain, there used to be a far different conception of how the brain developed. Scientists used to believe that after childhood, your brain structure was pretty much set.
But, in 2000, a study that looked at the grey matter of taxi drivers showed real evidence of neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity to form new neural pathways and connections. London taxi drivers who spent a lot of time on the road had more grey matter in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with special memory.
This discovery led more researchers to begin new explorations into neuroplasticity. In 2010, a Swedish study investigated plasticity of the white matter tracts that connect the left and right hemisphere of the frontal lobes. The scientists tested two groups of adults, one group between the ages of 21 and 30, and the other between 65 and 80. The results did not show any significant age-related differences in terms of memory or speed.
What does this mean? Older brains are just as capable of changing as younger brains.
Training can change your brain even after a few sessions. Of course, the longer the training, the better the results. As you learn a new language, you improve your white matter integrity, better connecting neural cells and making it easier to accomplish a cognitive task.
The brain is a highly dynamic structure which can change itself according to new experiences. So, you can in fact teach an old dog new tricks!
4. By Now, You’ve Mastered the Art of Self-Directed LearningAn older person has already learned how to learn. You’re not starting from scratch. You know what learning strategies work for you and you’ve become more efficient; you can get to the point and not waste time on methods that don’t work.
You have better metacognitive skills than someone half your age, which means that you are better at “self-directed learning.”
There was a test done a few years ago that examined how younger and older adults select valuable information to study. The scientists showed each age group words with values attached, ranging from low to high. Participants were allowed to choose which values to study and decide how much time they wanted to spend on each. The results showed that “older adults allocated a disproportionately greater amount of study time to the higher-value words, and age-differences in recall were reduced or eliminated for the highest value words. In addition, older adults capitalized on recency effects in a strategic manner, by studying high-value items often but also immediately before the test.”
5. You Just Need to Learn in a Different WayAdult learners need to learn differently. You may not be as quick and sharp as a young learner, but we’ve already established that you have other advantages.
Now, you just have to take the advantages mentioned above and turn them into a new learning strategy. Let the differences you have as an older learner be reflected in your approach. Maybe start slower, take in bits of new information, build up from words and phrases to sentences. Before you know it, you’ll be able to have full on conversations.
Be patient. You might not has as much time to dedicate to studying because you have a lot more daily responsibilities, but you also have the benefit of learning at your own pace.
You’ve got to get out of the mindset that you’re too old. If you think that way, then you won’t try because you’re convinced it’s hopeless, but that’s just not true.
Fair enough, an older brain may not be as active and ready to learn as a younger one that is constantly doing new things, but you can change that. An active brain will learn better than an inactive one, so try to get out there and get it going again. Find new hobbies, like cooking or photography, take up gardening, do crossword puzzles. You can also change your diet a bit by adding foods that improve memory, like salmon or sardines for Omega-3s, memory-enhancing gingko biloba, and blueberries or other foods high in antioxidants.
As long as you’re keeping active, you’ll find that learning a new language is much easier. And, on the reverse side, learning a new language will help keep the mind active. It’s a great way to exercise your brain, keeping you healthier and happier for years to come!
Note: This is a guest post by Jennifer Berube. Jennifer will be available to comment on any thoughts that you would like to share!
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