“To me, old age is always fifteen years older than I am.”
– Bernard Baruch, American financier and philanthropist.
Dear reader, are you in the prime of your teenage years? Or are you twenty, fit and raring to go? Is your life laid out before you like a majestic Persian rug?
Good for you. Now shoo. That’s it, skedaddle. Vamoose. Go and read something else.
Ah, that’s better. Now they’ve all cleared out, we can talk about a somewhat delicate subject: whether it’s possible to learn a new language when you’re a bit older. Can you keep all that new vocabulary in your head? Can you learn new grammar structures? Is it too late to start?
Well, here’s the good news. The young hare may be speeding off into the linguistic distance, but you, my tortoise friend, have certain advantages in this race. Your brain is capable of things even you don’t know, and can develop extraordinarily, even in old age. Plus there’s one area where your age is a big advantage – self-directed learning. So pop on your comfy slippers, pour yourself a cup of tea (or something stronger), and read on.
Your brain is plastic
Decades ago, scientists had a much more fixed conception of the brain. They believed that how it develops when you’re a kid more or less determines your brain structure for the rest of your life.
But now we know that’s not true. A landmark study in 2000 (Macguire et al.) looked at grey matter in London taxi drivers. No, not the stuff in your belly button, the stuff in your brain. The drivers had more grey matter volume in the hippocampus, a little seahorse-shaped part of the brain that deals with (spatial) memory, if they’d spent a lot of time driving. Here was real evidence of neuroplasticity, the capacity of the brain to change and form new neural connections.
This lead to an explosion of research into neuroplasticity. We now know that training can change your brain even after only a few sessions and the longer the training, the more robust the effect. Then, in 2010, a group of Swedish scientists tested a group of younger (21-30) and older (65-80) adults for six months, and ‘did not detect any significant age-related differences in plasticity of white-matter microstructure’. Translation: older brains can change too.
Neuroplasticity and language learning
So what happens to the brain of an adult who learns languages? A group of adult students learning Chinese were tested over a nine-month period in 2012, during which they showed ‘improved white-matter integrity’. White matter is what connects neural cells, so the better connected, the better you can accomplish a cognitive task.
An even more remarkable finding was how a group of military interpreters actually developed larger hippocampuses (there’s that seahorse again!) after three months of intense language learning.
Still want more? Oh, alright then. Language learning builds up your ‘cognitive reserve’, which makes you more resistant to brain damage. If you’re bilingual, congratulations! You may have just delayed the onset of dementia by several years. Have another drink, why don’t you.
Damn cheating oldies
If you’re upset about not being quite as quick as you used to be, or your memory, there’s a silver lining. You’ve got something going for you that no teenager has.
You’ve learned how to learn. You know the strategies that work for you and what not to waste your time on. Your brain may not be as swift as that of someone half your age, but you have better ‘metacognitive skills’. Another name for this is ‘self-directed learning’.
A few years ago, scientists tried to test this. They got groups of older people and younger people and showed them words with points values attached, ranging from low to high. Then they allowed the subjects to review whatever they wanted. They noticed that the older subjects spent more time on the valuable words but their recall was just as good as the younger subjects. In a remarkable display of why older people are not to be trusted, the scientists also discovered that they’d sneakily revised the high-value words just before the test.
So, there you have it: there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t learn a language up to a ripe old age.
Now you’ll have to think of another excuse…
Do you learn a language to keep mentally fit? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
We are launching a series of portraits of Babbel users – a snapshot of their lives, and the reasons why they are learning a new language. If you’d like to share your story, let us know in the comments. This month we spoke with Mireille, a 24-year old student from Switzerland who is learning Swedish for a very good reason – love.
My first encounter with Swedish was in school. When I was 16, I met my boyfriend… who was Swedish. (more…)
My grandmother learned French at school in Australia in the late 1950s. For years she studied it dutifully, and the one phrase that she recalls vividly to this day is:
La plume de ma tante est dans le jardin avec le lion.
For those who never had the pleasure or pain of learning French, it translates as ‘My aunt’s pen is in the garden with the lion’. Difficult to slip into casual conversation, to say the least. (more…)
When you’re learning a new language, tongue-twisters are a great way to practice your pronunciation. Tongue-twisters are sentences or series of words that are hard to say. They often have similar alternating sounds, like ‘s’ and ‘sh’ or ‘p’ and ‘b’. Although they are typically nonsense, the English classic “She sells sea shells on the sea shore, and the shells that she sells are sea shells, I’m sure” was actually a popular song in 1908 based on the life of Mary Anning, a famous British fossil hunter and collector.
To celebrate the release of our Swedish tongue-twisters course, we’ve selected eight tongue-twisters in different languages – English, German, Italian, French, Danish, Swedish, Turkish and Russian – and turned them into short animations. Can you master them? (more…)
Anja from backpacking blog happybackpacker.de has been travelling the world for almost 15 years, writing about her travels and her two great passions, surfing and diving. She recently spent several months on the road in South America and was reminded how important it is to have a few phrases of the local lingo up your sleeve. (more…)
At the heart of Hanoi, Vietnam, there is a lake. Many roads converge to form a circuit around it. As evening falls and the city’s suffocating heat drops, people start cruising around the lake on scooters, driving around and around and around. They aren’t going anywhere. Sometimes I drive around the lake too, feeling the air on my face. (more…)
In France and Italy, the start of September is a time of furious activity: la rentrée, or il rientro, loosely translated as ‘the return’, or back to school.
Students all over the country go back to school. Businesses reopen. People go back to work. Stores hold massive sales. An enormous machinery cranks into gear as the country lets go of its holiday spirit and mentally shifts into a new year. (more…)
Knowing how to build a new learning habit is crucial for your long-term learning goals. That’s why for the past few months, we’ve been investigating habit-forming. How can we help people form habits that keep them engaged in regularly learning a language?
We all know that an important part of learning is repetition and regularity. This may sound rather boring, but it is inevitable if you are serious about it.
A regular comment from our users is “I can’t find the time to learn regularly.” Does this sound like you? How many times have you gotten to the end of a long day, and not managed to find that little ten-minute window you promised yourself?
While we understand time is an issue, we believe the real challenge lies elsewhere.
It turns out that there is a way to create a new routine in your life. It starts with choosing a very simple behavior that you wish to do every day. But contrary to popular belief, it’s not about scheduling that behavior at a specific time, but about reliably triggering that new behavior so it becomes second nature.
Here’s how you can build a new learning habit in three simple steps. (more…)
Imagine a friendly alien stops you on your way home. This little fellow has come to earth in desperate need of a good cup of coffee. The fate of millions on its home planet depends on whether it returns with a coffee machine and the knowledge of how to operate it. Of course, you are eager to help out. What do you do?
- describe in simple words how to brew a cup of coffee
- refer to an an article about coffee preparation on Wikipedia
- draw a diagram of a coffee machine
- take it home and show it how to make a coffee
The option you chose might say something about your preferred way of learning. (more…)
Here at Babbel, we don’t shy away from the big questions. How can we solve global warming? Is Keynesian economics dead? Which nationality has the sexiest accent?