It’s common knowledge that children have a remarkable aptitude for picking up foreign languages, absorbing new sounds, phrases, and modes of speech quickly and—seemingly—with considerably less effort than adults. Research has supported this, showing that the ideal time to learn another language may be between 3 and 7 years old… so what does that mean for the rest of us?
Well, it could mean that you will have to “study” a bit more than a 5 year old, but other than that, it turns out that your adult brain is actually better equipped for language learning than a child’s in many respects. There are tremendous advantages to learning a foreign language at any age, and there are particular benefits to language learning at an older age, too.
Adults Have More Substantial Vocabularies
When children are exposed to multiple languages at a young age, the words and sounds of language are still new to them, in both the new language and their native one. As a result, the key language learning processes of adapting and imitating are simplified in children’s brains. Adults, on the other hand, have a wider vocabulary and a pre-existing understanding of how language works that allows them to learn more efficiently. Because they already have a solid grasp on the intricacies of grammar and the logic behind tricky concepts like verb conjugations and homophones, adults can jump right into their language learning, focusing on the distinct differences between their own language and the target language without having to grapple with the underlying linguistic concepts behind them as well.
There are More Learning Opportunities Available
It comes as no surprise that adult language learners are (typically!) more disciplined, intrinsically motivated, and flexible than their younger counterparts. That flexibility is especially important, as it means that adults have the simple benefit of being able to take advantage of more of the language learning opportunities around them. The options for experiential language learning abound: taking a class, reading books and magazines in the new language, enjoying foreign films and music, joining a local meetup group for speaking practice, or even saving up for an overseas vacation. Adults also have free reign to make use of the growing number of technological resources for language learning, including online language classes that may fit more smoothly into their busy schedules. Some of these online course offerings—like CORE’s distance learning options—are taught by live teachers, creating an interactive classroom experience remarkably similar to the traditional class settings to which adults may be accustomed or partial to from prior study.
Language Learning Slows Down Aging
Brains are a lot like bodies in that the more you exercise them, the more fit they become. Specifically, the parts of your brain you actively use while learning a language grow to be more capable and adaptable; and by strengthening your neural networks and enhancing your brain’s plasticity, you can help slow down the aging process. The mental exercise of language learning has also been scientifically proven to enhance memory and cognitive recognition, which can contribute to preventing or delaying the onset of symptoms of related conditions like Alzheimer’s disease:
The positive changes in the structure and functionality of adult brains indicate that there are anti-aging benefits of learning a new language. Learning a foreign language imparts a protective effect on memory. One study has shown that, after taking into account factors like education, occupation, gender, and where the subjects resided (urban vs. rural), bilingual subjects with dementia manifested symptoms about 4.5 years later than monolinguals with dementia. —BrainBlogger
Similar studies on the anti-aging effects of language learning and bilingualism offer a great deal of encouragement for aspiring language learners of all ages. The benefits and advantages of language learning are present and meaningful across stages of live, and actually increase with age… so when it comes to the question of how old is too old, it really is never too late to start!