Learning a language, are we really too old?

Today we have a guest post by Jade Henriques, a young language learner who is planning to pursue a degree in linguistics. Here is her website languageninjas.com. You can also keep up with Facebook.

From the first time I started learning languages, I see this question pop up from time to time. I too considered if I was just too old to learn another language. The thing is that people believe that you have to be at a certain age to learn a language, once you pass this age learning a language is next to impossible.

On the contrary scientist may disagree; I’ve actually stumbled across many researches that say; not learning a language because of your age is a myth. When it comes to learning a language, adults actually have the capability of learning faster than little children. One perspective I have is that as adults we already learned the basics of communication and the meaning of objects around us. For example, a seven year old may learn that a tree is a plant, a tree has leaves, and a tree grows from the soil. As adults we know this already, in our second language all we need to know is what a tree is in that language, we don’t need to go into details of what it is or a description of it.

It’s still, however, an ongoing battle of whether children learn better or adults do.

Our Brains can actually do it
The human brain is still a mystery to many scholars and scientists out there. The complexity of it is baffling. Something I see so very often is that if we see a word 160 times over, it is permanently lodged into our permanent memory. That doesn’t mean you should sit and say a word 160 times over. It means that if over a period of time, on different occasions, if you see a word at least 160 times, it’s going to be hard to forget that word. This research was carried out by a group of Cambridge neuroscientists. This is why reading is so important when learning a language. The first time you see a word and you don’t understand it, don’t beat yourself up. If you were to see this word again, and again and again, our brains will begin to make sense of it and remember it for us.

It’s about inputting
There is no way on God’s earth you can speak a language with very little input. It is in the same essence if you see a word for the first time and you don’t understand it right of the back, then that simple means you hardly see this word or you’ve never seen this word before. So, before you open your mouth, start inputting data into your brain.

I’ve find that it is actually easier to remember words when we are not fighting ourselves to remember them. For instance, making vocabulary list and spending your day studying this list is not the way to go.

But naturally just reading and listening (to things you actually enjoy) will help you to remember words faster and pain free.

Long term, Medium term and short term memory
Long term memory is words that we will never forget. Long term memory is very hard to destroy and it would take a brain disorder such as Alzheimer’s to do so. This is what the above study suggests that if a word is seen 160 times, then it’s a part of your long term memory. With words in your medium term memory, it suggests that you have seen these words numerous times but not enough. If you neglect these words over a period of time, chances are you will forget them. Words in your short term memory are the easiest to forget, maybe you just seen these words a handful of times, overtime, try to make words in your short term memory apart of your long term memory.

In conclusion, you are not too old to learn a language; it’s just a matter of practice and a passion for the language.

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

4 Responses to Learning a language, are we really too old?

  1. David Eger says:

    Sorry, Simon – I couldn’t help but draw your attention to this:

    “who is planning to peruse a degree in linguistics.”


  2. David Eger says:

    Thanks for the correction. I can take Jade’s post seriously now.

  3. Lev says:

    But this post only talks about dictionary. Learning grammar becomes harder with age, according to this post: http://gameswithwords.fieldofscience.com/2007/09/why-is-learning-foreign-language-so.html

  4. BnB says:

    I find that, in my 50s, I can learn new languages, but sound production, for some reason, isn’t as easy. I was learning Dutch a couple years ago, and did ok. But I could sit at a restaurant, for instance, and formulate in my mind what I wanted to say when ordering food while awaiting the waiter. But when the sentence actually came out of my mouth, it was a pile of mush on the table. Embarrassing.

    So it’s doable, but more challenging to develop good pronunciation and accent. Of course, that’s no reason not to try…

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