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language learning in the digital age

Why age is no barrier to learning a language

Posted on October 22, 2014 by

neuroplasticity

“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.

 

Comments

I am born and raised in New York State, United States. I am 1/4 German and had a desire to learn the language of my fathers side. His family was from stutgard. Have been using all available mediums, and Babbel has been an enjoyable part of my German immersion. Not giving up.
Kevin

I am an native English speaker. I learned Spanish at the age of 21 with intense immersion. I was blessed with an opportunity to live in Spain for a year. I used Spanish occasionally over the years but forgot a lot. Fast forward 3 decades. Three years ago I began reviewing grammar, watching movies and listening to audios in Spanish and the language has come flooding back. I have regained much of my fluency and can converse and understand most of what is said even at my age (in my 50’s). I am still learning and getting better at the language!

You are fortunate Susan Gee, living so close to Germany. I would love to live there. I’ve taken 2-3 levels of German in college. My daughter & I have been there, love it!

So true James Hamilton. Ive been learning German & Spanish. Would help if I could go live in those countries for awhile. I would LOVE TO, but cannot afford it & I don’t know anyone there, so that makes it tough.

Try this to help with language learning. Watch the ads on TV. In Spanish, they are frantically fast and I often can only catch a word or two. So what I do is, next time I see the ad, I try to catch just one or two more words I do NOT understand and I look them up in my dictionary. The next time I see the ad, same thing. After a while, I am able to understand the whole ad, despite its speed! This helps to accustom one to understanding Spanish at high speed. Good luck!

adorei amei por favor mande convite meus amigos

muitoooooooooo legalllllllllll*******************otimo

Después de haber leído a todos los participantes, me es grato compartirlo y trataré muy pronto de re incorporarme al equipo de +BABBEL. Lo haré y les agradeceré pueda repetir las lecciones, es algo que sentí necesitaba para por avanzar muchas gracias y saludos

I tried the German language but gave up as thought that I was not mastering it at all. I keep speaking with people but feel ashamed as have lived in Switzerland for 12 years now.

Hi Susan. Completely understand the feeling, I think it’s very common among people who live abroad. Feeling discouraged is totally normal. If you can set yourself tiny little goals – today I want to order a croissant in German, say – that might help you build up your confidence. Good luck, and keep going!

I like to study languages. I am a retired teacher in Swedish. Now I am free to do things I had not time to do before. Now I have time to study. I have always wanted to learn French and Italian. Now I can do it and I love it.

…,am an english language fluent talker & would wish to take this altimate chance to learn a new language that’s french as my choice for a general use.,
i’ll be grand to start my lessons with you.

I am 80 years old – passed Fitness Instructor Exams, physiology and anatomy a year ago and am now learning Italian at evening school and with Babbel.. I have no problems with memory loss, Thanks babbel, val

Lisa I must say that I like yr
determination to motivate old
people trying to learn a new
language. I´m 37×2 and have
not quit to learn Deutch.

Perhaps when i close my office i´ll be prepared to start!
Tks

As I am 77 today I hope that all these positive comments are true. Certainly I agree with the quotation from Bernard Baruch – except that maybe I have just realigned it to being 10 years older!

I am 75, and am working to learn German off and on for a couple of years. It has been slow. Reading and writing is much easier than comprehending speech, but in the last couple of months it is coming together better. I use Babbel, TV, friends, reading children’s books (smaller words!), writing sentences, etc.

I am a 48 year old Turkish medical doctor. I have learned English in my twenties. Few years ago I attended to some German classes. I think I was learning okey. Now I am learning French with Babbel. I belive the things mentioned in your post. Everyone should try to learn till their time comes to an end. Thank you for your nice content in language learning.

I study French here on Babbel. I tried other programs and I’ve been using Babble for I think about a year now. I really don’t think I can ever get fluent doing this. I watch movies in French and I listen to French radio stations so I can here people speak it in real time. I just can’t keep up and I can’t understand what’s being said. It’s frustrating! I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. I think as an American I just don’t have the ability to learn another language.

I know what you mean, Michael – it can be tough, and that feeling of not understanding can be quite frustrating. All I can say is, you’re not alone! Everyone who’s learning a language experiences it to some degree. Stick with it, and don’t be too harsh on yourself. You probably don’t even realise the progress you’ve already made.

I´ve been learning my second language (español) for 2 1/2 years. I sure do hope it´s working on the gray matter, because I have a serious genetic history of alzheimer´s and dementia. In the meantime….I´m having so much fun! (And Babbel has been with me for a good part of this ride so far!)

I am just trying to bring back some of my years-ago knowledge of French. It’s fun. I hate to go overboard, but Babbel is almost like a computer game!

Si, estoy jubilada. Trabajé como profesora de Matemática y Física. Ahora leo lo que tengo ganas. Para que mi cerebro no envejezca tanto, estoy repasando inglés en babel.

There’s hope for us more “mature” language learning citizens yet 🙂

learning a language requires a prolonged time in that particular country to speak and listen to people so as to put into action what you have learned using books and Babbel

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