If you’re an adult learning a language, you may have read some bad news lately. According to one source, anyone older than 17 has no hopes of becoming fluent in another language. The Guardian wrote about it. The BBC wrote about it. Time wrote about it. To read this, you would think it was truly the end of times for language learning.
There were just a few problems with this idea of fluency. All of these articles were spurred by this one study published in Cognition, but that study never even used the words “fluent” or “fluency.” The researchers were looking at the critical period for language acquisition and did so by putting out a Facebook grammar quiz that 700,000 people took. The results did show that after the age of 17, people tend to make more grammar and pronunciation mistakes. People decided that this means people can’t become fluent after a certain age. But it doesn’t.
Fluency is often the ultimate goal for language learners because everyone wants to be able to speak their second language effortlessly. But the whole idea of becoming fluent can be a bit ambiguous. Do you have to know every word in a language to be fluent? Are you not allowed to make mistakes? Do you need a flawless accent?
The answer to all of these questions is, frankly, no. You don’t even know all the words of your native tongue, and everyone makes mistakes. The whole concept of fluency is not very useful, especially when you’re just starting out. Need more convincing? Here are a few reasons why learning a language is still a worthwhile task, even if you don’t master every single little aspect.
1. You Can Still Communicate With Other People
Communication is at the heart of learning a language. Fortunately, talking to someone in another language doesn’t require a complete mastery. You don’t need to know all the vocabulary for sailing a ship in French when you’re just ordering a baguette. This is also the reason why when you’re learning a language, you’ll want to start by learning all of the vocabulary you’re most likely to encounter. If you try to become completely fluent before ever speaking to someone in your target language, you’ll miss out on a lot of useful experiences.
2. You’ll Get The Brain Benefits Of Learning A Language
Learning a second language is really great for your brain. Studies show that language learning helps with fighting off dementia, multitasking, lengthening your attention span and making a person literally happier. And to reap the many benefits, all you need to do is go ahead and start learning. Whether you’re planning to move to another country or just keeping your mind sharp, learning a language will give your brain a boost.
3. You’re More Likely To Stick With The Language If You Have Attainable Goals
Having a specific goal when you’re learning a language is important for your motivation. Research shows that envisioning your goals helps you succeed. Not all goals are created equally, however. Making your goal “becoming fluent” is certainly aspirational, but after a while, it may begin to seem out of your reach. When you’re struggling to understand all the different genders of German and fluency seems like a pipe dream, you may be inclined to give up. By making your goals more concrete, like “order meals in Russian” or “read a book in Spanish,” you’ll be able to take more realistic steps forward.
4. Mistakes Are A Part Of Life
You’ve studied a language for months, you’ve decided to visit a new country to practice your speaking skills, and then, inevitably, you make some sort of mistake when talking to a local. Maybe you used the informal instead of the formal, or your mind just completely blanked and you were left with your mouth hanging open. It’s alright! You survived. Sure, it can be embarrassing, but it’s very far from the end of the world. Mistakes are an important part of learning. Even those who have been speaking a language for years mess up once in a while.
This all isn’t to say fluency is bad in any way. We all want to speak other languages as best we can. But the obsession with perfection is something that can end up hurting the learning process, rather than helping. Learning a language is a process, and it’s better to enjoy each step rather than be consumed by the ultimate goal.