“I’m too old to learn a new language.”
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
You’ve probably heard some variation of these statements before.
But how true are they?
What Experts Say
First, we’ll need to turn to the concept of “neuroplasticity,” which refers to your brain’s ability to change itself in response to new experiences (e.g. help you learn).
Because neuroplasticity decreases with age, the brain gets worse at changing itself. This is what makes it harder for us to remember new things as we get older.
However, this doesn’t mean our brain stops changing altogether. In fact, scientists point out that our brains continue to change dynamically everyday, even as adults!
In addition, we need to keep in mind that memory isn’t all there is to language learning. For example, polyglot Steve Kaufmann argues that he learns better with age, partly because the older he is, the better he understands himself and how he learns.
Researchers in the field also often point out that adults already have another language under their belt, which helps them learn faster.
- On a basic level, this means that if your native tongue shares similarities with the one you’re learning, you’ll have an easier time learning that new one. For example, if you already know how to read the Latin alphabet, you don’t need to re-learn it when you learn English, French, Vietnamese or any language that uses the same letters!
- On a deeper level, this means that, unlike children, you already have a mental concept of the world. For example, a three-year-old child might not know what a wheel is, but you certainly do. So when you try to learn the word for it in another language, you don’t have to “reinvent the wheel” in your mind. You just learn the word and map it onto your pre-existing knowledge.
So at least according to the experts, you can teach an old dog new tricks. But as older learners, we need to use the right methods and be realistic.
What Methods Can We Use?
Let's look at the main reasons adults do not become fluent in a language, and what methods to apply to solve those problems.
1. We have misconceptions about ourselves that hold us back.
Throughout our lifetimes, we may have developed some misconceptions about ourselves that prevent us from achieving our full potential. For example, many of us adults believe that we’re not good at learning languages or believe we’ll never become fluent because we’re shy.
If this sounds like you, read this blog post to unravel such misconceptions.
2. We don’t have anyone to talk to in our target language.
Luckily, in this day and age, even if we can’t find someone to practice our target language with in-person, there are many free ways to practice speaking online.
You also have the option of hiring a tutor. As an elderly learner explains on the Association of Retired Persons (AARP) website, “For many people (including me), adding at least a smidgen of one-on-one learning to the mix—a tutor concentrating on you alone for an hour or so at a time—can make a crucial difference.”
And if you can’t find an in-person tutor, try an online tutor. Here at Engoo, we have thousands of tutors ready to help you 24/7. Our monthly subscription model also encourages learners to take one lesson a day, so that speaking English becomes a habit in just weeks and second nature in months.
3. “But I’ll Never Sound Like a Native Speaker.”
It’s true that as an older learner, we probably won’t become as native-like as a child learning a language. However, it’s not impossible.
After all, you have the same vocal tract as native speakers. It’s a matter of learning how to use it, which requires a lot of practice and usually the help of a dialect coach or accent reduction specialist.
But do you really want to go through all the work of becoming “native-like” in a language when all you need is to be able to communicate?
From TED talks, it’s clear that we don’t need to speak English like a native to be fluent. For example, check out this talk by a Russian journalist, this one by a Brazilian banker, and this one by a Chinese scientist.
And believe it or not, non-native speakers of English now outnumber native speakers by a ratio of four to one. As a result, the majority of English language conversations today don’t involve a single native speaker.
One of our Japanese students realized this after moving to Berlin: “It's important for people to get rid of the idea that they need to speak English perfectly. Living here in Berlin, nobody speaks perfect English.”
So there’s really no need for any of us to sound completely native. We just need to become fluent enough to communicate.
Many Adults Have Mastered Foreign Languages… And You Can Too!
Lastly, in addition to the distinguished people in the TED Talks above, remember that throughout history, millions of adults have had to move to a different part of the world and learn the language of their new home.
Most of them didn’t learn their new language at the so-called “best age to learn a language.” Most probably didn’t become near-native and they probably still forgot words now and then, but they could communicate and live in a new country.
Plus, as adults, learning a language is a great way to work out your brain. So in addition to becoming fluent, research says you might also be able to delay the onset of dementia!
So what are you waiting for? Start learning today! And make sure to sign up for Engoo. Your first lesson’s on us!