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What Does Age Have To Do With Learning A Foreign Language?

Aug 18, 2007
I learned Spanish when I was 22. I had graduated from college as a Math teacher and had no plans of ever being bilingual. I had taken 4 years of French in high school and hated it.

When I made the decision to study Spanish, no one believed me. (Just for reference, this was in 1982, a time when learning foreign languages wasn't a big deal in the US). Their reaction was along the lines of, "Your time has already come and gone." In other words, for others, age was a factor.

To make a long story short, I became fluent, got certified as a Spanish teacher and had a chance to quiet the naysayers.

What did I think back when people told me I had "missed the boat" as far as learning a foreign language was concerned? I usually got depressed and anxious. After all, I didn't know anyone else who had learned Spanish after graduating college.

I was influenced by what people said. I'm sure others in the same position ended up quitting. Luckily for me, I didn't.

A lot of time has passed since I learned Spanish. Nowadays, there are more and more people studying languages in Adult Ed. classes and online. Yet, I still hear a lot of comments from people who would love to speak another language but feel it's too late.

When I ask them what they mean by "it's too late," they usually come up with things like:

- your brain doesn't capture language after a certain age.
- your brain can't hear the language.
- your brain can't process as quickly, etc.

The list could go on and on. Unfortunately, when I ask them where they got their information, they don't have an answer. They don't know where they heard it but they are convinced it's true.

Perhaps if they knew of a study in 2001 by the Foreign Service Institute which found that adults have an advantage in becoming bilingual, they would change their minds. The reason is simple: Adults have already "learned how to learn."

According to the study, "A motivated adult with reasonably good language- learning skills in a good instructional program will develop a set of core grammatical structures and a range of useful vocabulary faster and more firmly than children will."

I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that adults have an advantage but it is definitely not the disadvantage that so many believe it is.

Naturally, children have a more carefree attitude towards making mistakes and that helps them progress quicker. But any adult can adopt the same attitude a child has. After all, you ARE learning a second language! You're the one that is stretching yourself to learn something new. That should be a point of pride. And mistakes are part of the learning process.

In conclusion, if you are interested in learning a foreign language, make sure that you take into consideration the time you have, the interest level and the resources.

And don't think for a minute about your age!
About the Author
Jim Sarris is a veteran Spanish teacher and the author of a new ebook/audio series "The Secret to Learning Any Language." Visit his blog to obtain free information and learn about other resources to help you learn faster and easier than ever.Language learning made easy.
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