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Learning a New Language as an Adult: It's Never Too Late!

July 2, 2019

 

          The room was filled with the clanking of metal chairs on the hard floor, the chatter of energetic 12-year-olds, and the occasional howl of laughter at a friend's joke. Our Spanish teacher, a plucky and gregarious polyglot, shuffled into the room. After the group took a moment to calm down, she introduced herself and began the semester by telling us about her mission in life.

          "It is so very important to introduce the youth to new languages," she began. "Did you know that before babies are a year old they make every sound a human being can make? They still have that capability for up to three years. And up to nine years, you can bring it back, but after that, learning languages becomes really really difficult-- impossible in some cases. That's why in families of recent immigrants, the kids speak better English than their parents!"

          This instructor, who actually proved to be quite kind and helpful, did not address her opening speech to the proper audience. Although a county school board who is deciding whether or not to add foreign languages to the curriculum would have benefitted from this information, the data she presented demotivated us students. We were a bunch of old dogs trying in vain to learn a new trick.

          I took it to heart for a long time. Assuming my time had passed, it would be nearly fifteen years before I would attempt a foreign language again.

 

 

 

          However, the actual research paints a more nuanced picture. Through the age of seventeen or so, people generally have an easier time achieving a level of fluency like that of a native speaker. However, it is also documented that many adults do achieve native-level mastery.

          So putting excuses aside, how does an adult language learner find his or her motivation? Perhaps one can start here:

 

          Accept that you will speak with an accent. To reiterate, the same study does suggest that adults are less likely to speak with native-like proficiency. To that, I say: so what?! One of Tom's favorite sayings is, "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." The idea that learning a skill is only worthwhile if one can reach perfect levels of performance keeps many of us from even trying. Few people would say that time spent learning and playing soccer/football was time wasted, just because they never became Pelé.

 

          So let us approach new skills with a realistic outlook, but let us nevertheless continue to approach them with passion and commitment.

 

"But do you know how old I will be by the time I learn to really play the piano / act / paint / write a decent play?' 

 

Yes... the same age you will be if you don't." -- Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way

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