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My Half-Century Attempt to Learn French

Kids may have an edge when learning languages, but adults also have some major advantages when they put their minds to it

By Marie Sherlock
A woman riding a bike in down a cobblestone street in France. Next Avenue, older adults learning another language
"Knowing more than one language delays Alzheimer's and other types of dementia by four to six years on average,"  |  Credit: Getty

Conventional wisdom dictates that the best time to learn a foreign language is when you're young, very young, barely-out-of-the-womb young. The malleable brains of children — the logic goes — are quite literally designed to absorb new information (all of that neuroplasticity!).

I am decades — many decades — past that blink-and-you've-missed-it deadline. Even my earliest exposure to a foreign language was apparently too late: Junior High French taught the ALM way (remember ALM ? "Bonjour! Comment vas-tu?" Lots of rote memorization). I contemplated — for a nanosecond — majoring in French in college and that was the extent of my quest for bilingualism.

Does that conventional wisdom still hold true? Did I miss the boat?

Until retirement. With time on my hands — and itchy feet — I've traveled to France four times, taken French classes, bought all five levels of Rosetta Stone Français, and, of course, I've got the Duolingo app on my phone. I've even participated in a couple of immersion programs.

And yet — I am still monolingual!

Oh. Mon. Dieu.

So does that conventional wisdom still hold true? Did I miss the boat?

Thankfully, no. "That seems to be a bias the general public has as opposed to what the scientific evidence says about learning a second language," explains Northwestern University Professor Viorica Marian, director of Northwestern's Bilingualism and Psycholinguistics Research Lab and the author of "The Power of Language: How the Codes We Use to Think, Speak and Live Transform Our Minds." She adds, "It is absolutely possible to learn a second language at any age."

In fact, Marian says that older Americans attempting to learn a second language (aka Second Language Acquisition or SLA) have many advantages over those with supple younger brains.

And then there are the perks! When you hear about the many benefits that SLA bestows on learners, you may find yourself adding "learn to speak Spanish!" to that bucket list.

Old Dogs CAN Learn New Tricks

First, let's debunk that old saw that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks." Kids may have an edge when it comes to "unconscious" learning of a second language (passive exposure — like children raised in bilingual households) but adults have some major advantages when, well, when they put their minds to it.

"If you know the why, you can live any how."

One is (sort of) simple physics: If we're retired, we often have more time to devote to mastering a second language, says Marian. "Another advantage is that older individuals tend to know themselves better — they know what works best for them in terms of learning strategies."

Adults also have acquired more knowledge about how language works, superior study skills and a better grasp of rules and patterns generally. Other research indicates that those over 55 are better at SLA than those under 35 because they "commit more heavily and stick to a language course once they start it." (Take that, millennials!)

Finally, there's this: "Older adults are often much more motivated to learn another language especially when they know all of the benefits of doing so," says Marian. "They really have a reason for learning."

She quotes Nietzsche: "If you know the why, you can live any how."


The 'Whys' (Benefits)

So what are those "whys?"

The first benefit is overall brain health. "Healthier brain aging is facilitated by using two or more languages," notes Marian.

The second big benefit is pretty much a corollary of the first: "Knowing more than one language delays Alzheimer's and other types of dementia by four to six years on average," says Marian.

Wait — what? Four to six YEARS? Yup, that's what the research shows.

"We don't have a treatment for dementia right now," explains Marian, "but we do have intervention lifestyle variables that have proved protective toward delaying Alzheimer's and dementia, things like exercise, level of education, social circles and language acquisition." Of these, Marian notes, "the strongest two are exercise and using two or more languages."

"When you learn a second language your brain is constantly working, juggling multiple languages. It's like getting a workout for your brain," she explains.

"When you learn another language, an entire new world opens up to you."

Delaying Alzheimer's Disease and related dementias (ADRD for short) stands out as a major "why." Developing ADRD is one of the biggest concerns of older individuals — some research indicates it's our number one fear. (Here's an added bummer: The fear of acquiring ADRD can, itself, lead to more memory failures.)

Beyond being able to speak another language and all of those healthy brain bennies, SLA has myriad other perks, according to Marian, including social, cultural, lifestyle and neural rewards — even higher salaries in some countries. "There are ubiquitous benefits in all areas," she says. "When you learn another language, an entire new world opens up to you."

But what if you're not fluent — but more of a dabbler, like me? "Interestingly, you start to see changes in the executive function (a higher level cognitive skill set) after a couple of semesters of taking a foreign language," says Marian.

The ‘Hows’

I tell Professor Marian about my half-century SLA quest, thinking she might reprimand me for my French Fluency Failure.

She doesn't. First she says, "that's great!" about my high school and college efforts. "If you learned a language at some point, that information is not lost. It's easy to re-learn and bring up things that you've learned before. It's still there," she says optimistically.

Marian's first rule for SLA for the older individual is to be consistent. Make it a habit, like you would with an exercise program.

Be consistent. Make it a habit, like you would with an exercise program.

Secondly, opt for learning strategies that make sense for you. Tailor your efforts to your personality, interests and learning style. Marian rattles off a few possibilities — from traveling to (or living in!) another country to taking classes to simply playing games in another language on your phone. "If you choose a method that you genuinely enjoy, you're much more likely to have a positive experience, become proficient and reap all of those benefits," she says.

Finally, wannabe-polyglots should "build language into their lives," says Marian. There are a host of big and small ways to integrate another language into your daily schedule. Marian had one student who changed all of the settings on his TV and computer to French. "Listen to French music in the car, watch movies with subtitles. Little things that aren't overwhelming."

"Make it not a chore. Make it enjoyable," Marian concludes.

So how do I measure up vis-a-vis these recommendations? While I do generally opt for methods that I enjoy — traveling to Paris! — I am far from consistent. I'll get a spurt of second-language-learning-energy for a few weeks — and then slack off. And I certainly haven't incorporated French into my daily life.

But I've been inspired by Professor Marian to hop back on the SLA bandwagon. With new ideas for strategies (hows) and plenty of good-for-the-old-noggin reasons (whys), I'm on my way to following Nietzsche's advice. I may even change the settings on my streaming services to Français (if I can figure out how to do that).

Marian sums it all up with this parting wisdom: "There is no downside to learning another language because it's so cognitively beneficial, so neurally beneficial, so lifestyle beneficial. And even if you don't become fluent you will still reap benefits."

Marie Sherlock
Marie Sherlock practiced law for a decade before turning to writing and editing in her 30s — and never looked back. She's worked as the editor of several publications and is the author of a parenting book (Living Simply with Children; Three Rivers Press). She spends her empty-nest days writing about travel trends and destinations, simplicity, spirituality and social justice issues. Read More
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