A while back I wrote an article telling that I was Back in the Saddle, back to studying language again. I had taken a short break of two months from my classes, and I was happy to get back to learning more of the local language. In that article, I promised that I would be coming out with an article regarding the age old common knowledge that everybody sites… if you are a bit older, it is very hard to learn a new language.
You see, I am an advocate that if you are going to live in a foreign country, it is important that you make an effort to learn how to speak the language that is spoken in that country. You don’t necessarily need to become fluent in the language, but at least learn some of the commonly used words, a bit of grammar and be able to say basic things to people in their language. I say this because if you do so, you will be more accepted into society, and your life will be a lot more enjoyable.
When I say this, the most common negative comment that I hear is:
I am already in my 40’s (or 50’s or 60’s, etc.), and it’s very hard for a person my age to learn a new language.
There may or may not be scientific evidence that a person of an older age has a more difficult time learning a new language, I can’t be sure. I have tried to research into this and can’t find a cut and dried answer to the question. However, I have some anecdotal thoughts that my disprove, or at least make you think twice if this is your thinking.
When I was in Junior High School and High School, I lived in Southern California. In school, I studied Spanish for 3 years. I learned a fair number of words and phrases, but I would not say that I became fluent or even very conversant in Spanish. When I was 45 years old, just 2 1/2 years ago, I decided to study Cebuano, the most commonly spoken language in the area where I am living. So, I have studied Cebuano (Bisaya) for a shorter time than I studied Spanish, and I was much younger when I studied Spanish. However, I have a much better knowledge of Cebuano than I ever did Spanish. How can it be? I am older, and have studied less… hmmm… let’s see how it could be.
When I was studying Spanish, it was a school course. I didn’t have a burning desire or even a big need to learn how to speak Spanish. I needed to learn enough of it so that I could pass my class and move on to something else. Yeah, I picked up enough that I could talk to somebody in a very simple manner, and probably make myself understood in Spanish in an emergency, but I could not sit down and really talk with somebody in Spanish in a pleasurable way.
Move forward some 35 years or so and look at my study of Cebuano. When I started studying it, I was living in a society that spoke Cebuano. I was surrounded by the language, it was what I heard if I went out into the streets of the place where I lived. When I heard people talk, sometimes I thought they were talking about me, and I wanted to know what they were saying. Sometimes I needed to tell somebody something, and wanted to be able to tell them in their language. Many of the people on the street could indeed speak and understand English, but they did not speak English unless spoken to in English, and often their English skills were rather limited. That’s not their fault, after all, they did not go to live in a society that used English, I am the one who came to reside in their society, so it was kind of up to me to learn how to communicate here.
You see, because of these factors, I was motivated! There was a reason why it was important for me to study and learn how to communicate in the local language.
So, the factor of my age really played little role in my ability to learn. When I was young, perhaps there was a physical ability for my brain to absorb a language in a superior way, or a quicker way. However, I really didn’t have a motivation or a real need to learn the language, so I was not making that much of an effort. Later in life, when I set out to learn a language, I had desire and need, and that pushed me to do what I needed to do to learn, regardless of whether it was technically easier or more difficult for my brain to absorb that information.
Another factor to consider is that when you are surrounded by a language that is new to you, you may not understand what is being said, but your brain is hearing those words. You may not even understand or be able to repeat the words, but your brain is hearing them, and absorbing them. Then, when you start learning the language, you learn things and it comes back to you… “oh, I remember hearing that before, now I know what it means!” It really works that way. As I have studied Cebuano, I have had these “aha” moments regularly, several times per month. I learn something and say “oh, I remember hearing Feyma say that before…” and something clicks in my mind. So, being immersed in the language is very helpful, and something that most people can’t take advantage of at a young age, because few youngsters are immersed like that.
So, maybe you are really against learning a language. If so, no problem, don’t make any effort to learn it. It’s really of no consequence to me if you feel that way. However, if that is your way of thinking, don’t complain when you can’t understand. But, if you are willing to take an hour or two each week away from your TV time, well, you can do it! You would be surprised how easy it is to learn enough of the language to improve your life, if you are willing. The key is to get a good teacher, and spend a little time learning. If you are tired of it, take a break. You will not learn if you don’t want to learn, so you have to wait until the time is right for you. You can do it, though, regardless of your age. I know that, and if you are willing to spend a small amount of time trying, you will know it too!
No, I’m not trying to force you to learn the language. But, if you are an American, think about this. How many times have you said “Those Mexicans coming up across the border don’t even learn English!” I know that I said that when I lived in the USA. In fact, when I thought about the fact that I had uttered those words many times in the past, it dawned on me that I had immigrated to the Philippines and had made no effort to learn the local language! It’s a humbling thought!
Good luck! Give it a try, I know you can do it, and I also know that you will be happy that you did!