The Real Reason People Over 50 Are So Good At Learning Languages

I managed to learn a new language in my 50’s, here’s how:
How I learned a language later in life

The well-known proverb “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” seems to have a way of discouraging older individuals from learning new languages. Let’s be realistic: Though it’s true that we all learn at different paces and in different ways, this is not a rule when we have a genuine interest and are focused on achieving our goals. Learning a second language, even after the age of 50, is extremely satisfying, decreases our stress levels, focuses the mind and, if that’s not enough, it even helps us retain our ability to concentrate.

The brain does not wrinkle with age (even if the skin unfortunately does), but it does go through some changes that slow down the way it retains certain information. In fact, language courses for older people are very common! So let’s not be fooled — it’s not that you can’t teach an old dog, but that the dog has finally reached an age where it can decide what, when and how it learns.

Mission Impossible?

The only thing these misconceptions about aging achieve is to push people to dismiss the idea of learning another language without even trying — and overlook all of the benefits that come with age. Once we reach our forties, we’re more aware of what we want and of why we want it. We have the maturity required to overcome difficulties through perseverance and, furthermore, we typically have enough free time to make independent learning possible. In our fifties, we start to want different things, not only for other people but for ourselves, seeking out personal satisfaction and giving ourselves new challenges.

So when we’re worrying about following a healthy lifestyle, taking care of our bodies through diet and exercise, we should also make sure to exercise our brains daily — and there’s no better mental workout than learning a new language. Attempting to learn another language keeps the brain in optimum condition by providing tools to decrease memory loss and increase neurological regeneration. This has been proven to continue even into old age.

The wonderful practice of writing things down in order to not forget anything, a common habit of many older individuals, is extremely useful when learning new languages as it stimulates our visual memory.

Taking The First Step

Once we’ve decided to learn a new language, the first step is to decide which language we want to learn and especially to determine why: a trip abroad, to discover the culture of a country or a personal challenge. For example, my dream when I was a girl was to learn German, but the trials and tribulations of life meant that this dream would be buried for many years, but not forgotten.

Approaching the age of 50, with my children grown and more time to spend on myself, I dug up my dream and set off on the adventure of studying German. At the beginning of my journey, I only knew one word: Hallo. Now, five years later, I’m still learning and I’ll be exercising my brain for a lot longer with this marvelous, structured and complicated language which has become my passion. After discovering this wonderful universe of languages, I feel the desire to learn a couple more. We shouldn’t be afraid of sifting through our memories and digging up dreams that we can still make come true.

Next Steps

The second step is to design your own strategies and to set reasonable goals. Don’t try to learn all of the vocabulary in a single session — learning requires practice, patience and persistence. Create habits, such as a setting a dedicated time to learn, listening to a couple of songs or podcasts a day, or reading short texts or children’s stories and finding the new words you’ve learned in them. The wonderful practice of writing things down in order to not forget anything, a common habit of many older individuals, is extremely useful when learning new languages as it stimulates our visual memory. Tricks like labeling household items with sticky notes or writing grocery lists in the language you’re learning help you to retain information and creates an association in the brain between the item and the word. In this way, you’ll repeat these words throughout the day and your vocabulary will grow without you even thinking about it.

Fifteen minutes of learning a day is enough to focus on your goal without overloading your brain. If you want to create a daily routine longer than this time limit, it’s recommended that you take a break to do something else and then come back to review what you studied during the lesson. We older individuals go a little more slowly but still surely on our journeys.

Tech-Savvy And Over 50

Older individuals are finally getting the attention we deserve from technology companies, so the next step is to find the right tool for our needs. Babbel, for example, combines education and technology to make learning easier, and it’s a simple way of gradually introducing a daily routine. The most important thing is to not put pressure on yourself or be afraid to go slowly. Approach language learning calmly and go at your own speed — this way it’s less likely that you’ll lose interest or motivation. Ask questions if you feel lost and reach out for help to resolve roadblocks. This is another place where we have a real advantage over young people: We’re not afraid of asking questions or finding solutions with others.

Language learning isn’t what it used to be. It’s no longer a case of memorizing long vocabulary lists — that’s a thing of the past. Decide on a number of verbs that you think is a reasonable amount to learn in a day — it could be three or five. Try to remember them before going to sleep and write one or two simple phrases with them. Then voilà! You’ll be speaking another language in no time. 

Though it may take those of us over 50 a little longer to learn, we have powerful weapons at our disposal: We’re disciplined and tenacious, and we have a freedom that allows us to spend our time and adapt our learning to our needs. Our life experience helps us make comparisons between cultural customs and social norms, labor, and politics so that we can understand a language on a deeper level. We have a lifetime of social skills, so we can have conversations in another language without fear of making mistakes and we can gracefully accept suggestions.

The advantages that come with learning a new language are practically infinite, the only limits are ones that we set ourselves. Furthermore, the personal satisfaction of mastering another language is immense — and where there’s a will, there’s a way. If I could do it, you can too. I guarantee it.

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