Am I Too Old to Learn a New Language?

When Gina Bell decided to learn Spanish at the age of 63, it wasn’t without fear that her age would limit her ability to learn a new language. “I love the Latin American culture, and have been blown away by the food and hospitality of the people while traveling. So, I decided to learn the language and deepen my appreciation for the culture. I was terrified I would fail, but it was a challenge I was invested in”, says Bell. “I’ve noticed that I’ve forgotten a lot more as I aged, and I’m pretty sure I don’t retain information how I once used to. Learning something new just isn’t as easy as it was when I was younger”. Well, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, or can you?

Modern science has proved that although it might be harder to learn something new at an older age, the brain is a dynamic structure which continues to grow, adapt, and change. The brain’s response to new experiences, and adaptation to injury, is called neuroplasticity. It is said that the reason it is harder to learn something new at an older age is simply due to the decrease in neuroplasticity as you get older.

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For an older learner, some aspects of language learning become easier, while others are harder. For example, adults have a much larger vocabulary than those of children. Therefore, learning and retaining new vocabulary is easier for adults than children as there is already something to reference in the native language. However, accents and pronunciation are harder for older learners to acquire. It might be harder to learn a new language at an older age, but research suggests that the benefits can far outweigh any discouragement one might feel.

It has been shown that as we age, most people experience a decline in memory and attention, and in some, those losses can be linked to the onset of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. But a number of modern studies conclude that learning a second language can slow the inevitable age related cognitive decline, and thereby directly delay the onset of dementia. The biggest study of this kind was conducted by researchers at Edinburgh University. After examining the medical records of over 600 Alzheimer’s patients, they concluded that bilinguals, on average, developed dementia 4.5 years later than their monolingual counterparts.

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Research has also found that being bilingual increases what neuroscientists call our executive function. Executive functions are a set of mental processes which help to prioritize information and tasks. It also limits distractions, and increases your attention to detail. But how does one go about learning a completely new language? Bell swears by language immersion.

“I knew that in order for me to learn a new language, I needed to be completely immersed”, says Bell. “It’s almost like survival. I went in thinking, ‘if I really want to survive [Guatemala], I need to learn to communicate–I need to learn to ask for food, and I need to have a social life’ ”. This idea that language immersion is the best way to learn a new language is backed by science, also.

To study the benefits of language immersion, Michael Ullman, a neuroscientist at Georgetown University Medical Center, split subjects into two groups; one group studied the language in a formal classroom setting, while the other learned through language immersion. After five months, both groups were tested with an EEG to measure brain processing.

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Ullman found that both groups showed brain processes similar to a native speaker, but the immersion group showed full brain patterns of a native speaker, even though none of the groups even used the language. This study shows that continuous study of a foreign language later in life can still help you to reap the benefits of the bilingual brain processes. With more research, Ullman says language learning “could or should help in rehabilitation of people with traumatic brain injury,”

Therefore, even though it may be harder to become a fluent foreign language speaker later in life, the benefits to do so are worth it. Foreign language speakers benefit by an increase in cognitive functions, executive functions, cultural awareness, and the ability to express oneself to a broader population. Take it from Bell when she says, “Not only am I now able to genuinely interact and connect with the people of Latin America, a region I hold dear to my heart, but knowing that I was able to set and achieve my goal of learning a foreign language, regardless of my age, was also extremely rewarding”.