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Languages for Adults – Is it too late?

Quite simply, NO!

As adults, we are both blessed and plagued with having life experience. We go through life enduring and solving problems, making the best of bad situations, learning from mistakes (hopefully) and using our knowledge to be better people and live a better existence.

What we also do, is become lazy. We make excuses for ourselves because we’ve been there and done that. We’re not in our prime anymore, some may say, so we can leave the new stuff to the young ones. We get complacent – we’ve lived our school days, we got or have had careers and we almost develop a bigoted attitude.

What needs to change firstly is the belief that we are not good enough to learn anything new. Learning should be a lifelong ambition regardless of age. Learning should envelop us, it should shape us and it should continue to enrich us.

Learning new skills are essential to our personal enrichment, development and shaping. Whether you use these new skills as part of an assessment, part of work or whether you use them practically is irrelevant. Continuing the learning process in adulthood has been proven to benefit us in ways that you cannot put a price on, ways that you cannot buy. One of the skills that heighten these benefits the most is learning a new language.

Below are responses to the most common excuses I have heard from adults over the years regarding language learning:

“I don’t have the language learning gene.”

There is a language learning gene, and if you have it, you will likely pick up a foreign language proficiently at the speed of light.[1] However many do not have this, including myself, which becomes a question of nature vs. nurture. I am a firm believer that the only reason I became proficient in foreign languages was because firstly I was curious and interested in languages, which I am adamant came from the encouragement of my parents when I was younger. I was never naturally talented at languages, I always had to put in a lot of effort and I had to work damn hard to get a grade A at GCSE and I got a B at A Level – nothing mind-blowing. The main factor for me was that I enjoyed language learning. Whether your goal is to simply try something new to stimulate your mind, get by on holiday or become bilingual, the language learning gene is not essential in your learning journey. The language learning gene will not give you the curiosity, the drive and the ambition for learning a language competently. These are the essential factors that can only come from you as a person. The language learning gene will only make the process that little bit easier, however what it doesn’t give you is the courage and the enthusiasm to start in the first place.

“I’ll never have a perfect accent”

It is true that as we get older, we are less likely to develop an authentic accent in the foreign language than if we started learning from childhood. Largely, this really doesn’t matter. By the same token, as we get older, we realise with our blessed life experience that the effort we put into something is much more respected than the actual outcome. This is certainly true for foreign language speakers.

Accent is not an indicator of competency. You could speak a foreign language perfectly but still retain a British accent, however the outcome is the same – we are communicating effectively and we are making ourselves understood. I have spoken to many people in various foreign languages, some I speak fluently, some I can merely get by. Either way, I still retain a slight British accent because I am not a native, nor will I ever be. Those people have known immediately that I am not a native, but it has never once affected the communication and it has only enhanced the admiration and respect that foreign speakers have for us Brits who are breaking the stereotype of being ignorant. So, perfect accent or not, do not allow this to deter you. We have to persevere and be proud that we are the few who are at least trying.

“I’m too old to ever be fluent.”

‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’, a proverb believed to be true however in research that has been published since the 1960’s, this assumption has been found to be false.[2]

It is however true, that as adults, we will naturally find language learning more difficult, but not in every way. We have a wider vocabulary than that of our younger counterparts, most likely the same as a native speaker which will therefore make the learning of vocabulary so much easier for us. What will prove to be more difficult is the acquisition of grammar and the pronunciation.

This by no means makes language learning for adults impossible, it just means that where younger people have to work less hard, we have to work that bit harder. However, vice versa. Where young people have to work harder with vocabulary acquisition, we find it that much easier. All in all, it is swings and roundabouts.

Essentially, the most important thing is that we have clear-set and realistic goals when we are starting on our language learning journey. We are no longer young and naïve. We know it’s going to take effort, but we have the fire in our bellies. We have the drive and the guts and the gall to do it. We have the life experience to make links and make it stick. We have a more sophisticated way of learning and that means that over the same period of time, adults have the capacity to learn a foreign language faster, reaching a higher level of competency more quickly.

And separate to this, but most importantly learning another language is beneficial to our health. It has been found that the stimulation of knowing at least two languages, the brain power required to separate them and the ability to think in complex ways can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by 4 to 5 years. [3] This is not to say that learning a language will prevent this terrible disease; however it has been proven in this same research that those who are bilingual suffer less brain damage. Becoming bilingual later in life is a big ask, however the actual stimulation and exercising of the brain in the language learning process creates a similar effect – the onset of Alzheimer’s can again be delayed due to healthy and strong brain power.

Another study undertaken in 2015 shows that adults who speak more than one language are twice as likely to retain full brain function after a stroke.[4]

So, fluency, bilingualism or a simple new past time, learning a language in adulthood is a no brainer.

“Why start now?”

Why not start now?? Why not learn a new skill?? Why not challenge yourself, exercise your brain and have something different to be proud of??

Instead of being part of the majority who regret not being able to speak a foreign language, be part of the minority who can hold their heads up high, regardless of fluency, competency or accent, and be proud of what you are achieving. Now is the time to start. Now is the time to stop putting it off. Now is the time for the adventure to begin.

‘It is never too early, nor is it ever too late.’

[1] http://www.washington.edu/news/2016/06/13/success-in-second-language-learning-linked-to-genetic-and-brain-measures/
[2] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/sep/13/am-i-too-old-to-learn-a-language
[3] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/jun/12/ellen-bialystok-bilingual-brains-more-healthy
[4] https://www.livescience.com/12917-learning-language-bilingual-protects-alzheimers.html

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