When it comes to learning a new language we often hear comments like, “I’m too old to start.” “It’s too late for me.” Do you really think so? Do you think that once people reach a certain age they are no longer capable of learning a new language? Or perhaps it’s just an excuse for not taking on a new challenge… How can we know if it’s too late to learn a foreign language? Or do you believe, as we do, that age isn’t an obstacle to learning languages? Can you learn a language at any age?
I won’t say what age I consider “old,” because I think we’re always children at heart. 😉 Instead, I’ll prove why age isn’t an obstacle to learning languages and prove that you can learn a language at any age, and back up my claims with scientific data! Several studies have found that older people are indeed able to learn new languages. In fact, they can learn just as quickly as young people, and in some cases, even faster!
Can You Learn a Language at Any Age?
There are many advantages of learning a language after having reached a certain age of maturity compared to learning them when you are young. For example, motivation, nonverbal communication, and phonetics, just to name a few. Maturity is a great resource when learning a language. Still don’t buy it? I’m going to try to change your mind by the end of this article.
Neuroplasticity, or eternal youth of the mind
Many years ago, researchers discovered that, like most of the rest of our body, our brain develops a lot throughout our lives. It is constantly changing, because we never stop learning. This characteristic is called neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity. Neuroplasticity is a scientific term that describes all the ways that our brain changes. Change happens especially during neurogenesis, which is when new neurons are created during the learning process. This also occurs when we are faced with new experiences, such as a new environment or an injury.
Our brain is constantly evolving and doesn’t stop doing so once we’ve reached a certain age. It evolves as we ourselves evolve and learn. A 2000 study by Maguire et al based on MRI scans of the brain of taxi drivers supports this theory. They conducted their study on London taxi drivers, who must spend nearly two years driving through city streets before they can get their license. Scientists wanted to study how such intensive training affects the brain. The results of 16 taxi drivers showed that their hippocampus* was physically larger than that of 50 healthy men in other professions. In addition, the more experience these taxi drivers gained, the more their hippocampus developed. This means that this intensive training period contributed to their cerebral development, regardless of their age.
Our brain is continuously evolving, even in old age. It doesn’t stop evolving once we blow out 50, 60 or even 70 candles. The more we learn, the more it develops. There are very few limitations.
Our brains have demonstrated that we’re never too old to learn. There is no right age to learn a new language (or anything else, for that matter)! Can you learn a language at any age? Definitely!
How about the brains of military interpreters?
Another study in 2012 conducted on military interpreters by a group of researchers led by Johan Martensson showed the influence of learning a new language on the brain. Researchers measured hippocampal volume before and after three months of an intensive language course. What was the result?
The study revealed that the hippocampus developed in proportion to the number of courses taken. In short, the hippocampus of the military interpreters who participated in language courses was bigger than those who did not attend language classes.
Metacognitive ability is just a matter of habit
Older people have clear cognitive benefits for language learning, scientifically termed as metacognitive competences. That means that older people can use their wealth of life experiences to make language progress more easily.
A study led by Mary Schleppegrell in 1987* shows that age doesn’t play a factor in the decline of language learning. Young students take longer to learn languages than older people (1979 Studio di Krashen, Long and Scarcella). Why? Because adults are accustomed to communicating! Speaking, traveling, try to make themselves understood in a different language, etc. are not new experiences for them. Time is on your side!
Can You Learn a Language at Any Age: How Age is Not an Obstacle to Learning Languages and the Advantages we have as Adults
To sum it up, adults have more advantages, techniques and experiences that allow them to learn new languages quickly. A 1978 study by Walsh and Diller showed that older people are also more aware of grammar techniques and semantics. This awareness makes paying focusing easier. It also helps adults better understand what they are studying, which results in faster progress.
Watch the Adults vs. Kids Language Learning Match-Up!
Although I’ve already spoiled the ending for you, check out Lize’s video where she compares the different things that work in favor of kids and adults when it comes to language learning, and find out who the ultimate language learners are… The video is in English, but feel free to turn on subtitles in one of the six languages available.
Still think you’re too old to learn a new language? The only obstacle older people might face is vision problems, which can make it difficult to read online or on a smartphone. But you can always zoom in or change the font size to make it easier on your eyes! No excuses, only solutions! And MosaLingua Web makes learning language easy and comfortable, since you can use it on any computer. Give it a try! So the answer to can you learn a language at any age? Is yes!
* The hippocampus is the part of the brain that controls memory and spatial awareness
* “Eric Clearinghouse on language and linguistics Washington DC,” 1987
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