Wisdom in the News

Why it’s never too late to learn a language as an adult

By Tatyana Woodall, National Geographic

The long-held idea that language learning is better before adulthood is up for debate. Adults have a number of advantages when it comes to learning a second language, and it comes with major benefits.

For those looking to learn a new language, the process can feel daunting, especially as an adult.

It’s long been thought that the earlier you learn new skills, the easier they are to pick up. The idea that age can play a huge role in a person’s language learning ability is one of the reasons why early childhood was once considered the best time to introduce a second language. But whether that holds true has been heavily debated in the scientific community. 

Unfortunately, the idea has helped perpetuate doubt in older individuals’ ability to quickly adapt to new grammar, syntax, and semantics, thwarting the rise of many potential polyglots. 

A complex organ capable of constant evolution, the human brain has potential for higher learning after puberty, research suggests—adults and children simply absorb and learn things differently. 

“Research says that adults are better learners at everything because we have a lot of self-regulation and we're very intent when we want to learn something,” says Lourdes Ortega, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, who herself speaks four languages. “Adults all over the world arrive at different proficiencies, fluencies, capacities for what they want to do with language, but there is no ceiling to it.”

People who can communicate outside their mother tongue also experience a number of cognitive benefits, suggesting that it may be well worth expanding your verbal horizons. 

What it takes to learn a second language

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 20 percent of the U.S. population speaks another language other than English, compared to 59 percent of Europeans who can speak at least a second language, illustrating how different regions value language learning.  

Yet Ortega, who specializes in how people learn new languages beyond childhood, says that factors beyond age, like immersion, make a bigger difference in language learning success. “Without [the] opportunity to be exposed to the language, there's no learning that can happen, early or late,” she says. 

For most, it can take years to reach proficiency in a foreign language, says Ortega. According to The Foreign Service Institute (FSI), factors like a person’s natural ability, their previous linguistic experience, and the consistency of their lessons affect the language learning process.  

The FSI says languages that native English speakers would find similar to their own, such as Spanish or French, can be taught relatively quickly in about 24-30 weeks. In contrast, languages that have significant cultural differences from English, like Greek or Russian, will take about 44 weeks. Learning time could double that for languages considered exceptionally hard, such as Arabic or Mandarin. 

Such estimates reflect a stringent study model, with a dedicated number of hours spent practicing for multiple days per week, says Ortega. It’s impossible and unlikely to expect one individual to follow such a strict schedule on their own, especially as the rise of language learning apps like Babbel and Duolingo has widened accessibility to foreign education by allowing people the time and confidence to reach certain goalposts at their own pace. 

“No one can learn, as an adult, a new language unless they love it and unless they make it part of their life,” says Ortega. “In theory, it's a great thing, but you need to have reasons for it and the time to invest [in] it.”

That said, children and adults do have their own unique strengths and weaknesses when it comes to grasping new connections. Children tend to learn new languages more intuitively, may have more opportunities to play and experiment with new languages, and may be forced to adapt without the aid of translation apps or other resources. Adults can employ custom strategies to hone their language learning experience, like creating their own memorization systems or visualization techniques. 

Still, Joshua Hartshorne, a research associate professor at the MGH Institute of Health Professions, says scientists are finding that a lot more is going on at ages that they weren't really thinking about before. 

“People have been assuming that you more or less have gotten as good as you're going to get in a new language within four or five years,” says Hartshorne. “What we saw was actually, [as] people continue learning for about 30 years, they’ll continue to get better.” 

How a second language nourishes the mind  

Increasingly, longer-lived generations are looking to enhance their cognitive health and social lives, and the growing demand to learn another language has quickly proven to be a great way to accomplish it. 

“There are all sorts of cognitive benefits of being bilingual,“ says Boaz Keysar, a professor of psychology at The University of Chicago. “The more languages you learn, the more you realize what an important part [that] language is for our life. We take it for granted.”

For older adults, possible benefits include an increase in memory retention and obtaining a more expansive vocabulary. What’s more, many studies suggest learning another language as an adult could even help stave off dementia. Language learning enables students to become more flexible thinkers, says Keysar.

“You're more willing to take risks when you use a foreign language,” he says. “The words don't connect as much to your emotions.” Additionally, multilingual people are better at perspective-taking, meaning that they’re more tuned in to the intention of the speaker, says Keysar. It’s an ability that allows for smoother cross-cultural social interaction, and another facet of language that adults seem to be better equipped for. 

Despite language-bonding being a fantastic tool to expand a person’s social network, there’s still a lack of research surrounding the challenges older adults face when aiming to learn a new language.

According to one 2019 study that investigated the struggles they can face in classroom settings, older individuals may find themselves forced to use textbooks that don't consider their needs, like ones that utilize examples and activities that might be too childish or inappropriate for them to take seriously—and be reluctant to speak up to avoid making mistakes.

Nevertheless, discovering a language other than your own can be very rewarding. The best way to reap the bulk of those rewards is to start today. 

“It would be wonderful if people would be more open to the idea that it can bring a lot of richness to your life,” says Ortega. ‘If nothing else, don't just try one language, try at least two because each of them feels very different.”

Click on the citation to read the original post:

Woodall, T. (2024, June 21). Why it’s never too late to learn a language as an adult. National Geographic. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/second-language-learning-adult-benefits?fbclid=IwZXh0bgNhZW0CMTEAAR3O9R4ggCmBFnKLtGoErpHBWglOkDjx3BgtdKvpJf0TRLzxBkMqQB3IXYM_aem_4XLIBJHkl86SP_U5UQvRKQ