Think You’re Too Old to Learn a New Language? Think Again

New Language

When I first immigrated to a new country, a local woman asked how old each of my siblings was, and predicted how easy it would be for each of us to learn the language based on our age. When she got to me, she tilted her head and said I was borderline. At age 10, apparently, I straddled some invisible border between the ability to acquire a new language effortlessly and fluently—the way a child learns, in the common perception—and the long, slogging haul of learning a new language as an adult.

She wasn’t entirely wrong, but she wasn’t entirely right, either. The fact is that our ability to acquire a new language depended on a diverse set of factors, our age being only one of them—and probably among the least significant. The social context in which we used each of those languages, and the “family language culture” (the language we used to speak at home, read books, watch movies, etc.) turned out to be far more important.

Brain Plasticity

Babies are born with the ability to absorb and learn any language on the planet. Babies who are exposed to multiple languages can even start out multilingual.

Neuroscientists explain that we are born with millions of brain cells with the potential for creating the neurological connections necessary to speak all these languages, but that over time, connections that are not used regularly fade. By the time we are adults we have fewer brain cells, and ostensibly, less potential to learn a new language.

While it’s true that it’s easier to learn a language as a young child, scientists have shown that adult brains are far more adaptive and flexible than we had previously thought. In 2010, for example, Swedish scientists tested two groups of adults—one younger (21-30) and one older (65-80)—and found that they “did not detect any significant age-related differences in plasticity of white-matter microstructure.”

It is not at all impossible to learn a new language as an adult. In fact, adults have a number of advantages over children when it comes to language acquisition:

Your Accent Might Be Terrible, but Your Vocabulary Will Be Terrific

One reason babies and young children are so good at learning languages is that they are still learning to differentiate sounds. That gives them a greater ability to pick up the subtle differences in pronunciation and intonation.

As an adult, however, you already have a much wider vocabulary in your native language than a child does. This gives you a greater ability to “map” new words into your already-existing language concepts.

Adults may have a harder time learning accents, syntax, and grammar, but they have an easier time picking up vocabulary.

You Have Learned How to Learn 

Another advantage you have over young children is that you have had a lot of experience learning new things. Your brain has already had a lot of practice in organizing and interpreting new information. This makes it easier for you to study a language yourself, without the need for a structured class.

The Deciding Factor Is Motivation

At the end of the day, your ability to pick up a new language depends how much you are willing to invest in learning it. Being willing to break your teeth and make mistakes while conversing with native speakers is a crucial step in gaining fluency.

You may never be able to speak like a native, but with enough regular practice, you will be able to understand the language and make yourself understood in it.

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