It’s commonly said that as you get older, it becomes more difficult to learn a new language. Some adults decide they shouldn’t even try because someone told them it would be too difficult. Is there any truth to that? Can an older person learn a new language?
Yes, an older person can learn a new language. Studies show that there’s some truth to children learning faster than adults. But, a factor that might make language learning as an adult more difficult is that adults have less time to study and learn than children do. With consistency, an older person can learn a new language and become fluent.
Adults are also more concerned with perfection than children are, which is another reason why older learners struggle so much. Continue reading to learn more about why children learn languages easily, as well as the advantages and challenges of learning as an adult.
Can I Learn a Language as an Adult?
Adults can learn new languages. The adult learning process is different from a child’s, however, which is why many people perceive it as “impossible” to learn when you’re older.
Your brain has two memory systems.
Declarative memory is what helps you learn and remember facts. This is what’s used to learn vocabulary when you study a new language.
Procedural memory is unconscious learning. You don’t really try to learn the things your procedural memory learns, such as habits. In language learning, this memory system is what allows you to learn grammar rules as a child with your first language.
When you were a baby, nobody put a textbook in front of you and explained why the noun is before the verb in “The dog ran quickly.” You picked it up naturally by hearing everyone around you speak. Children don’t rely on the declarative memory system when they’re young because it hasn’t fully developed yet, which is why they can pick up a second language almost as easily as their first.
Older learners, on the other hand, have a developed declarative memory, which sort of interrupts the procedural memory. As an adult, you can’t just recognize grammar patterns and store them in your brain anymore. You have to memorize them because of your declarative memory.
However, a study showed that adults who concentrated while listening to a fake language did better learning vocabulary while a second group that colored while listening did better learning grammar. The procedural memory is still active in adults, although it might not be as effective as a child’s.
Advantages and Challenges of Learning as an Adult
Learning a language as an adult can bring you some challenges, but you also have many advantages that you need to utilize.
- It’s your choice to learn. In the majority of cases, you’re not being forced to learn a language. You’re choosing to learn the language of your choice simply because you want to. Use this as your constant motivation to continue learning.
- You have more opportunities to practice and immerse yourself in the language. You have a better chance of knowing someone that speaks the language you’re learning. You can actually seek out people online that speak your desired language. Perhaps you can even travel abroad to a country that speaks the language, whether it’s for a vacation or for a work trip.
- Learning doesn’t have to be boring. Unfortunately, many high school language classes consist of studying for exams. Your adult learning life doesn’t have to look this way. Find a language partner online to speak with or find a unique language class that is more than just studying a textbook.
- Adults tend to be perfectionists. Children don’t always think about how they might be pronouncing a word incorrectly. They just repeat the word the best they can. Older learners often fear judgment for saying words wrong or using improper grammar. This gets in the way of learning how to speak correctly because you’re not speaking at all.
- You don’t have as much time. You don’t have all the time in the world anymore. You might have a job, a family, or organizations you have to dedicate your time to. Maybe all you can commit is ten minutes of learning per day. This is a big reason why children learn more easily than adults. Adults just don’t have as much time.
- You will struggle to lose your accent. Speech patterns are established by the time you’re an adult. So, it’s more difficult to adapt to the accent of the language you’re trying to learn. If you heard the foreign language as a child, you might be able to adopt the accent a little easier since the sounds are stored in your brain.
How to Learn a Language as an Adult
Since learning a second language as an adult has its own set of challenges, you need to know what some of the best learning methods are. As an older person, you probably have time constraints and distractions that will hinder you from learning. Take those limitations into consideration when you create a study schedule.
Use the Language You’re Learning Every Day
If you don’t have time to dedicate an hour or two to learning every day or are unable to immerse yourself in a different country, integrate the language you’re learning into your life. Immersing yourself in the language in a different country forces you to be exposed to the language. You can simulate this experience for yourself at home.
Methods you can use to immerse yourself in your desired language include:
- Reading books, blogs, and magazines
- Place vocabulary stickers on objects at home
- Find someone to speak with online or in person
- Set your apps and social media sites to the language you’re learning
- Talk to yourself
- Use a journal to practice writing
Immerse Yourself in the Culture
Surrounding yourself in the culture of the language you’re learning can be beneficial to helping you learn. If you’re unable to travel to another country, you can try some of these where you live:
- Visit restaurants that have food related to your desired language
- Listen to music and podcasts
- Watch movies, television, and YouTube videos
- Learn slang
If your work or family vacation allows you to take a trip to a country that speaks the language you’re learning, seize the opportunity. Children might seem to learn faster than you can, but many of them don’t have the chance to visit the country to learn the language. If you’re able to do so, take advantage of that. Immersion is one of the easiest ways to learn a language.
Remember Why You Want to Learn
Learning a new language can be discouraging at times. If life gets busy and you have to keep putting off studying, or you find that it’s difficult to remember vocabulary words, you might be tempted to give up.
Remember the reasons you want to learn the language. Is it so you can speak with a friend or family member? Is it to get a better paying job? Write down your reason and put it somewhere, so when you get discouraged, you’ll see it.
Language learning takes time and patience, especially when you’re an adult.
An older person can learn a new language. It might seem impossible to do, but it’s not. Adults typically have more difficulty learning a language than a child does, but this is because of how the brain memory systems work. Plus, adults have busy lives and can’t always dedicate their time and energy to hours of learning.
- Fluent U: Learning a Language as an Adult? There’s No Reason to Be Scared!
- Greatist: Adults Can Learn New Languages, Here’s Why
- Live Science: Why Adults Struggle to Pick up New Languages
- Medium: MIT Scientists prove adults learn language to fluency nearly as well as children
- PLOS One: Second Language Processing Shows Increased Native-Like Neural Responses after Months of No Exposure
- Scientific American: At What Age Does Our Ability to Learn a New Language Like a Native Speaker Disappear?
- Take Lessons: 6 Challenges & 4 Advantages Adults Have
- ThoughtCo.: 10 Tips for Learning a Foreign Language as an Adult