Does Age Matter When Learning Languages?
Posted on January 11, 2019
It’s said that it’s essential to start learning languages as young as possible, but is this really the case? Does age matter when learning languages? Here are some of my experiences learning languages with age, from a teenager until now.
French as a teenager
I first studied French at secondary school and we did a lot of grammar and verb conjugations. Does anyone enjoy verb endings? Like lots of British people, what I remember most clearly is learning how to ask for various items of stationery from our partners. I remember wondering why French people were so interested in stationery and assumed their conversations must be very boring!
At our school we had a lovely native French teacher and our accents really improved when we tried to copy a real French person.
A teen magazine article gave me the idea to learn vocab with mnemonics which I enjoyed a lot. After five years of studying French I got grade “A” but was unable to hold a conversation or understand a simple dialogue between French people in real life. I do sympathise with the school system trying to measure accuracy in language, which is, I think, more of an art.
Japanese in my early twenties
Before I was qualified to teach English I regret to say that I didn’t know how to study languages effectively. I had a great private tutor in Tokyo and spent a lot of time studying alone from books and notes. What I should have done was spoken more and made more mistakes and got through it, in addition to our private language classes.
French again in my mid twenties
After not speaking French for about eight years I moved to Paris to teach English. One reason I chose France was because I had studied French at school and was looking forward to refreshing my language skills.
On the ferry I realised that I needed to get my phasebook out to look up how to order a coffee. My French was dormant, and needed a trigger to get it back to the front of my mind. Fortunately this wasn’t such hard work as learning it the first time. I took group language classes to improve the accuracy of my French.
Happily, French people don’t ask each other about stationery much, as I had been led to believe at secondary school. Speaking French in real life as opposed to in school taught me that you have to make mistakes as part of your journey to learning a language. People will be impatient with you but you just have to carry on.
Spanish in my mid-thirties
Everyone says languages are easier when you’re younger. But my experience learning languages with age has been the opposite. My Spanish is much less precise than my school French but I’m able to communicate better and I learned it much faster because of previous experience learning languages.
One thing I find harder about Spanish is that it has taken me longer to get a sense of the “music” of the language. Recently in our group language class a young classmate told me that I spoke Spanish with a strong English accent, and I had to agree!
Then, to my surprise, my Spanish teacher said that he didn’t start learning English until he was in his mid-thirties too, and he speaks English with a very accurate British accent.
I have met several retirees who say they will only ever be able to speak a couple of words and phrases in the language they are learning. Well, in the words of Henry Ford: “If you think you can do a thing, or you think you can’t do a thing, you’re right”. I honestly think it’s more about attitude, and self-identifying as “bad at languages” than age.
I have been impressed by classmates in their eighties in my group language classes who are profient in Spanish and Japanese. We can often surprise ourselves.
In conclusion, learning languages with age may take longer but it’s not a race anyway. People who learn second languages as children can often fool native speakers into believing that they are also natives.
As adults we are unlikely to be able to do this, but we are still capable of getting to an advanced level in a foreign language. With age, hopefully we become more patient with ourselves too, which is key when learning something time consuming.