The impact of age on learning a language

Human infants are hardwired to pick up languages. Within a few short years, and without making any conscious effort, youngsters can grasp the basics of their mother tongues. Meanwhile, if they are exposed to two languages from an early stage, they quickly become bilingual. However, if you’re trying to pick up a foreign language as an adult, this task can be much tougher.

The fact is, adults’ and children’s brains work differently. Research shows that while bilingual youngsters use the same brain regions for both their languages, people who pick up second languages as adults rely on separate areas for their mother tongues and second languages. This is because people’s neuroplasticity decreases as they get older, meaning their brains become less able to change themselves in response to experiences. It’s also worth noting that adults can find it tougher than their younger counterparts to pick up the sounds, or phonemes, of languages.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

However, this doesn’t mean that any language learners beyond puberty should despair. With the right information and training at their disposal, and plenty of patience and dedication, they too can achieve fluency in foreign tongues, regardless of their age. Specialist language course providers like Spanish Connection offer a range of private and group lessons that can be tailored to meet individual learners’ objectives. By selecting a course style that suits them, whether this involves one-to-one sessions with a teacher or classes with other students, adults stand every chance of getting to grips with new languages.

It’s true that the older people are, the more effort they may have to put into the process and the more patience they will need. However, as long as they are determined to reach their goal, age need not be a barrier.

Benefiting your brain health

Indeed, there is mounting evidence to suggest that picking up new languages later in life can be beneficial for brain health, meaning there is an added incentive to start learning. As individuals age, they tend to experience a decline in certain mental functions, such as memory and attention. In some cases, this can eventually lead to dementia. Encouragingly, a number of recent studies have suggested that learning foreign languages can help to slow this process down.

One piece of research, conducted by a team at Edinburgh University, examined the medical records of over 600 Alzheimer’s patients in the city of Hyderabad, India. The scientists found that bilinguals developed dementia later than monolinguals by an average of 4.5 years.

Speaking to the Guardian, lead researcher Thomas Bak said: “Learning a language later on in life might be more beneficial than learning it earlier, because it takes more effort. It has parallels with physical exercise – a stroll is good for your health, but not as beneficial as a run.”

There’s no denying the fact that learning a new language as an adult can be tough, and the older you are, the more difficult it is likely to be. However, as long as you’re dedicated to the cause and you select suitable learning methods, there’s no reason why you won’t succeed – and the rewards should make it worth your while.