Why age is no barrier to learning a language
“To me, old age is always fifteen years older than I am.”
– Bernard Baruch, American financier and philanthropist.
Dear reader, are you in the prime of your teenage years? Or are you twenty, fit and raring to go? Is your life laid out before you like a majestic Persian rug?
Good for you. Now shoo. That’s it, skedaddle. Vamoose. Go and read something else.
Ah, that’s better. Now they’ve all cleared out, we can talk about a somewhat delicate subject: whether it’s possible to learn a new language when you’re a bit older. Can you keep all that new vocabulary in your head? Can you learn new grammar structures? Is it too late to start?
Well, here’s the good news. The young hare may be speeding off into the linguistic distance, but you, my tortoise friend, have certain advantages in this race. Your brain is capable of things even you don’t know, and can develop extraordinarily, even in old age. Plus there’s one area where your age is a big advantage – self-directed learning. So pop on your comfy slippers, pour yourself a cup of tea (or something stronger), and read on.
Your brain is plastic
Decades ago, scientists had a much more fixed conception of the brain. They believed that how it develops when you’re a kid more or less determines your brain structure for the rest of your life.
But now we know that’s not true. A landmark study in 2000 (Macguire et al.) looked at grey matter in London taxi drivers. No, not the stuff in your belly button, the stuff in your brain. The drivers had more grey matter volume in the hippocampus, a little seahorse-shaped part of the brain that deals with (spatial) memory, if they’d spent a lot of time driving. Here was real evidence of neuroplasticity, the capacity of the brain to change and form new neural connections.
This lead to an explosion of research into neuroplasticity. We now know that training can change your brain even after only a few sessions and the longer the training, the more robust the effect. Then, in 2010, a group of Swedish scientists tested a group of younger (21-30) and older (65-80) adults for six months, and ‘did not detect any significant age-related differences in plasticity of white-matter microstructure’. Translation: older brains can change too.
Neuroplasticity and language learning
So what happens to the brain of an adult who learns languages? A group of adult students learning Chinese were tested over a nine-month period in 2012, during which they showed ‘improved white-matter integrity’. White matter is what connects neural cells, so the better connected, the better you can accomplish a cognitive task.
An even more remarkable finding was how a group of military interpreters actually developed larger hippocampuses (there’s that seahorse again!) after three months of intense language learning.
Still want more? Oh, alright then. Language learning builds up your ‘cognitive reserve’, which makes you more resistant to brain damage. If you’re bilingual, congratulations! You may have just delayed the onset of dementia by several years. Have another drink, why don’t you.
Damn cheating oldies
If you’re upset about not being quite as quick as you used to be, or your memory, there’s a silver lining. You’ve got something going for you that no teenager has.
You’ve learned how to learn. You know the strategies that work for you and what not to waste your time on. Your brain may not be as swift as that of someone half your age, but you have better ‘metacognitive skills’. Another name for this is ‘self-directed learning’.
A few years ago, scientists tried to test this. They got groups of older people and younger people and showed them words with points values attached, ranging from low to high. Then they allowed the subjects to review whatever they wanted. They noticed that the older subjects spent more time on the valuable words but their recall was just as good as the younger subjects. In a remarkable display of why older people are not to be trusted, the scientists also discovered that they’d sneakily revised the high-value words just before the test.
So, there you have it: there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t learn a language up to a ripe old age.
Now you’ll have to think of another excuse…
Do you learn a language to keep mentally fit? Let us know your thoughts in the comments