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Life, love and language

Learning a new language later in life


Why on earth would anyone want to learn another language in the post-empty nest/pre-death part of life we like to call the golden years? Most often, I suppose, it’s because we plan to visit and/or live in another country and would like to use other methods than the typical English solution of shouting out one syllable words at the local populace to make ourselves understood.

There is another, even better reason though! There is reliable evidence that learning a second language at a comparatively advanced age helps to keep the brain flexible. An example of this is research carried out by Kavé from the Herczeg Institute on Aging, which suggests that senior citizens who speak more than one language function better cognitively.[i]


But wait a moment! What about the optimal age for learning language, the so-called ‘critical period’? What about ‘the younger the better’ approach which has led to the introduction of foreign languages in lower elementary school? Is it really possible to become proficient in another language once we’ve left our childhood (far) behind?

Well, while it IS true that learning a foreign language becomes more difficult with age, new research appears to indicate that this not necessarily a biological phenomenon. Although children do find it much easier to hear subtle differences in language, new discoveries in this area seem to show that the reason we have trouble distinguishing between different sounds is that we have actually learnt to ignore those sounds which are not pertinent to our own native language. Contrary to traditional lore, Drs Iverson and Hazan of UCL’s Department of Phonetics and Linguistics believe it may be possible to ‘retune’ our brains to hear these sounds again.[ii] After all, there ARE adults who have learnt even very difficult languages like Arabic and Japanese well enough to qualify as translators.

So, while most linguists agree that we may never master the pronunciation of our new language well enough to fool native speakers, there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t become proficient in another tongue, in fact, it is possible that adults may actually learn new vocabulary and sentence structure quicker than children do.


This is the crux of the matter, of course – going from the purely theoretical to the practical application. According to Charles Stansfield of Second Language Testing Inc., while children learn inductively, that is, by interacting with others and with their environment, adults are inclined to learn deductively and analytically[iii]. This has a nice ring to it. So, instead of immediately going out into public and putting our dignity and self respect on the line we can sit down with our CD’s and books and intellectually acquire enough vocabulary and grammatical know-how to enable us to put our dignity etc on line with a little more panache.

One slogan you might like to adopt if you wish to set out on a new linguistic adventure is ‘little and often’. Twenty minutes a day is fine, as long as it is every day. Setting aside a regular time and place also helps. Language learning, like any learning, requires enthusiasm, commitment, and lots of hard work. But the reward is a window into another society, another set of beliefs, another way of life.

[i] Tel Aviv University (2008, May 8). Speaking More Than One Language May Slow The Aging Process In The Mind. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 11, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2008/05/080507152419.htm

[ii] University College London (2005, June 15). Adults Can Be Retrained To Learn Second Languages More Easily, Says UCL Scientist. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 11, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2005/06/050615060545.htm

[iii] Strauss, V. (2005 April 26) Love of Learning Language Transcends All Ages. Linguists Say Youth Isn’t a Requirement to Master New Tongues. Washington Post. Retrieved May 11 2008, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/04/25/AR2005042501157.html

May 11, 2008 - Posted by | Learning a foreign language | , ,

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