There is a widespread idea that young people, especially children, learn languages faster, and as a consequence, the older you get, the more difficult it is to learn a new language.
I dare to question that children innately have a better ability to learn languages. Of course, an older person learning a new language does face a number of barriers as compared to children:
Barrier 1: Other responsibilities. Learning as about the only occupation that young children have, which is seldom the case for adults. Students are busier, but still have more time available than working adults. They have to juggle work, household tasks, and a social life with their language learning, and it’s understandable that learning a new language usually comes toward the bottom of the priority list. As such, they are also less likely to take full-time language lessons, which is the quickest way to learn.
Barrier 2: Lack of urgency. Children really have no choice but to learn their mother tongue, just to be able to express their needs. But when we manage to survive up to adulthood without speaking a certain language, it usually means that that language plays a less significant role in our lives. Learning it is simply not that urgent, as we have learnt to do without.
When people migrate to another country of which they don’t speak the language, the urgency to master a new language returns. In many such cases, people of any age are able to master an entirely new language in as little as 1-2 years time.
Barrier 3: No pressure. When it comes to learning a second or third language, children have parents and teachers who will ensure that they progress. Besides, there is also a certain peer pressure involved. School is mandatory for children. But if you’re an adult learner, who will make sure you put in the effort? Since there is no one with that kind of authority over you, progress depends entirely on your own persistence.
Barrier 4: The myth that it’s hard to learn a language when you’re older. Just believing that younger people learn a language more easily than more senior people can be a major barrier to successfully learning a new language. If you don’t even believe you will be able to do it, you probably won’t try hard enough. Language learning is a major effort for people of any age.
While (older) adults face the barriers as mentioned above, they also have advantages as compared to children. For example, since they know more languages already, they can more quickly recognize patterns.
Here are a few examples of older people successfully learning a new language:
- An Italian woman I know learnt English only in her late teens / early twenties. She is now as fluent as I am (if not more fluent).
- In my early twenties, I followed an intensive Spanish course in Salamanca, Spain. A few of my fellow students were in their 50s and 60s. They went through the program like anyone else and while there are differences from person to person, they were certainly not struggling because of their age.
- The latest language I have been learning is Mandarin. I started at the age of 24. My Mandarin ability has now surpassed several languages I started learning as much as 12 years earlier, such as French and Spanish.
- I started to read and write at the age of 6, which is the usual age in the Netherlands, where I grew up. It took me about a year to master writing the 26 letters of the Western alphabet and composing words. At the age of 14, I studied ancient Greek for a while. I mastered the Greek alphabet (23 letters) in about 2 weeks of occasional study and repetition.
So in conclusion, our language learning ability doesn’t deteriorate when we age. Our confidence, determination and motivation may suffer, but let’s not use the myth that older people cannot learn new languages as an excuse.