When I was a child, my “genie” wish was to be able to speak every language in the world. I realized early on that wasn’t likely to happen, so I settled on learning German in seventh grade and French in college. Later, my work as a travel writer took me to Tokyo, where I acquired a reasonable command of Japanese.
Today I am fluent in German, speak passable Japanese and remember bits of French, but studying Spanish in a twice-weekly class feels like the hardest language I've ever tried to learn. While I have some of the same motivations as I did with other languages — to enrich my life and travels — now, at midlife, I am also conscious that I'm doing something positive for my brain.
Memorizing grammar rules and new vocabulary seemed to come effortlessly when I was younger; now I find myself struggling to recall what I learned the previous week.
Could age be to blame? After all, we’ve all heard that the earlier we take up a second language the better, which sadly deters some adults from even trying. Despite the fact that my aptitude for rote memorization seems to have dropped over the years, I’ve doggedly stuck with it. And I’ve come to realize that I may have done a bit of “revisionist thinking” on how easy it was to learn German as a kid, sort of like how mothers never remember exactly how painful childbirth was.
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Good News for Middle-Aged Students
This recognition led to a Eureka moment for me: that my reasons for wanting to speak Spanish are different from what they were with German. And because motivation is the force that carries us over the hurdles, having this clear sense of my intentions has helped me deal with the frustration that arises whenever irregular verbs threaten to undo me.
Recently I stumbled upon some research that debunks the conventional wisdom that children learn language faster than adults. Educational psychologist Catherine Elizabeth Snow and others have shown that adolescents and adults can actually perform better than younger children under controlled conditions. They believe this is, at least in part, because older students can apply the skills they’ve acquired in mastering their mother tongue to the new one.
Lizette Peter, who teaches second-language acquisition at the University of Kansas, points out that there is more variation among learners of the same age than between child and adult learners, although adults who speak at least one foreign language will generally have an easier time picking up another.
Finally, science has now established that neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change, continues well into old age, meaning you really can teach an old dog new tricks.
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Boomers’ Challenges in Learning a New Language
At different stages of life, different tools are employed to learn languages. Young children, for instance, often play games and sing songs. Teenagers muscle through rote memorization and adults often find study easier with books, audio programs, handwritten notes and other methods they’ve grown comfortable with over the years.
Typically the biggest obstacle facing older learners is pronunciation. Research shows that children tend to be better at learning unfamiliar sounds and developing a native-like accent, like the guttural roll of the “r” in German. Hearing loss can also make acquiring foreign words and phrases a challenge.
It's also not true that younger students have better memories than older ones. “When my kids go home for the summer, they forget everything," says my Spanish instructor, Nici Coulson, who also teaches at a middle school. "So when they come back, I review everything in the first quarter that they learned the first year.”
That was the case for me, too. While I easily absorbed a lot of vocabulary and grammar, it took six years of public school and a bachelor’s degree in German — plus four years of living in Germany and speaking the language — for me to become proficient. (Having a German boyfriend for seven years didn’t hurt.) So why on earth did I think Spanish would come more quickly?
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Well Worth the Effort
Older students may actually have a few advantages when studying a language. Lizette Peter, who has personally studied 10 languages, says not to discount the value of developing personal learning strategies over time.
One of my classmates is Bill Getz, who’s 70 and retired. He says he's able to devote more time to studying and practicing Spanish at this stage of his life because he doesn’t have “10 other mental projects to do” and isn’t distracted from the pressure of work. For him, a foreign language is also a great way to exercise his brain. “I study to conserve my memory — to keep it as nimble as possible to memorize in the short term and to recall in the long term.”
Research backs him up. Learning a language even in middle age can help fend off dementia. And science tells us that anything that stretches cognitive thinking, including memorization, is exercise for the brain.
There are plenty of other benefits to learning a foreign language, including the obvious — being able to communicate with people from other countries. But I also love the sense of accomplishment I get from mastering a new tongue and the personal enrichment of learning about new cultures. When I went to Spain last autumn, I was surprised at how well I could actually communicate and how much more I experienced as a result.
Then there are the less tangible aspects. A foreign language forces us to think in unfamiliar ways. In German, for example, the verb usually comes at the end of the sentence, which involves a thought pattern that’s different from how we think in English. The Japanese use different words depending on whether the speaker is male or female and whom they are addressing. Many languages make the distinction between the “polite” form of address and the “familiar.”
Although I chose Spanish for the simple thrill of being able to converse with people from other cultures at home and abroad, I’m also motivated by brain health. Now, instead of getting frustrated at having to continually relearn grammar and vocabulary, I view this pursuit as a mental version of a crossword puzzle, which I happen to love. And for that reason, I’ll be studying languages for as long as I am able.