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One of the most common excuses I hear as an English teacher is, “I’m too old to learn English.”
I hear this all the time, from clients who are 60, and clients who are 25.
The idea of the "right age" to learn a language is one of the most widespread myths among people who wish to learn English. Many adults feel discouraged because they think that adults are somehow inferior to children and adolescents when it comes to learning new languages
I’m here to cheer you up with some good news: you can learn English at any age, and learning new things as you grow older is good for you.
So if you dream of picking up a second language, there’s no better time than now.
Dispel the myth that you can only learn a language when you're young. Here are the reasons that you’re never too old to learn English.
Can you only learn a language as a child?
There is a widespread idea that there is a critical period for language learning that finishes before puberty. It was popularised by the Canadian brain surgeons W. Penfield and L. Roberts in their book “Speech and Brain Mechanisms” (1959).
It’s true that there does seem to be a “critical period” for our first language. If children are not exposed to language at all before puberty, they do not seem to be able to learn language after.
But there does not seem to be evidence for a “critical period” for second languages. Yes, babies and young children have a special ability to pick up language. With all the brain development that’s happening in kids, they’re like a sponge, designed for learning language. But this is more like a “window of opportunity” in which our brains are better able to pick up language.
Adults can still learn languages effectively. In fact, some researchers find that older adults are better at learning language in some aspects.
For example, when two age groups are exposed to the same amount of instruction in a foreign language, the older ones invariably do much better in the short, medium and long term. They also seem to be able to focus better and remember meaning better than younger learners.
If you want more proof, a study out of MIT showed that there are a lot of “late language learners” that can get to native-like fluency in a second language nearly as well as children.
There is an advantage to starting earlier, but you can learn a language at any age.
Your brain continues to grow and adapt in adulthood
Have you ever heard of neuroplasticity?
This term refers to the brain's ability to reorganise neurons and neural circuits, shaping brain structures through learning and experience.
For much of the history of modern neuroscience, the adult brain was seen as a static structure that doesn’t change or grow. But research conducted since the 1960s has shown that our brain is in fact a highly dynamic structure and changes itself in response to new experience and learning.
Since children’s brains are developing, they’re great at learning new things quickly. But your brain doesn’t stop growing as an adult. It continues to create new neural networks even into old age. So you’re absolutely still able to learn new things, like English.
What’s the greatest factor in how our brains form connections?
Practice. It turns out that deliberate practice is the most important factor in both learning and in creating new neural connections.
So, no matter what your age is, the more you practise, the more your brain will reorganise itself and grow new neural networks, and the more you’ll learn.
Neuroplasticity is one reason that you're never too old to learn English: your brain is ready to learn at any age.
Brain gym: learning English will help you age better
There are many obvious reasons to learn a second language—to improve your resume, make traveling more enjoyable, and expand your cultural horizons. But learning English can also give your brain a boost.
As our brain ages, mental functions such as memory and attention can decline. When this process happens at an accelerated rate, it can lead to some conditions like dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
Fortunately, we know that challenging our brain, what scientists call brain gymnastics, can protect our brain from degenerating. And the good news is that learning a language is one of the best exercises to keep your brain healthy.
Recent studies suggest that learning a second language can slow down—and even delay—the onset of dementia. Bilingualism also seems to be a protective factor against Alzheimer's disease.
In addition to keeping your brain healthy, learning a second language helps people to be more creative and think critically. It may even improve brain function and other cognitive skills like memory, concentration, and problem-solving.
So learning a language can actually help us as we age.
Benefits from learning English as an adult
There are also a lot of reasons that learning English is easier when you’re older.
You are free to learn however you want
Learning a language as an adult means you can choose to learn English however you like. You don’t need to take English classes if you don’t want to; you are in charge of your own learning.
It also means that you probably are more motivated, unlike some students in school who may only be learning a language because they have to.
You’re more financially stable
After a certain age, most of us gain a kind of financial independence that makes it easier to engage in learning English. It may mean that we’re in a better position to plan a trip or even live in another country to further enhance our language skills.
You have a pre-existing language skills
Adult students have already achieved fluency in at least one language: their own.
Through years of talking, writing, and studying their mother tongue, adults have accumulated a wealth of knowledge and linguistic skills that help us understand how language works. This repertoire of knowledge becomes extremely valuable when learning a new language, especially if it shares the same root as the mother tongue (such as English does with Latin languages and with German).
This is another advantage they have over children learners. Babies may be quick learners, but they need to be: they not only have to learn the meaning of language, they have to learn how to create sounds, learn social skills, learn how to be polite, and generally be humans.
Adults have (usually) already figured all that out. They already understand most of what’s going on around them, so they can focus on the matter at hand: language learning.
You have years of study experience
I’ve been an English teacher for some time, and I can tell you: adults study better than children do.
Lots of adult English learners have previous "learning experience". They may have studied at university or college. And even those that don’t have a degree still are often better at building an English study plan—and following it.
Awareness of one’s own learning strategies is called “meta-cognition”. It’s really important: it helps you identify what you need to learn and how you’ll learn it. Meta-cognition enables more efficient learning. And adults are usually much better at it because they’ve had more practice.
Start learning English today
You can learn English at any age. With the right material and a good study strategy, you can become bilingual much earlier than you thought. So start today.
Here are some tips to help you to learn English at any age.
Set goals and be realistic
Would you like to learn a new language, but you also want to learn programming, get good at swimming, and watch the new seasons of your 19 favorite TV shows? Well, you might have to set priorities.
Learning a language is about frequency and consistency. Set up a daily study time and stick to it. Start with 20 minutes a day, which, by the way, is less time than many TV show episodes out there.
Learn all four skills
Choose a mix of activities to practice all four skills: listening (like podcasts, of course), speaking, reading, and writing. You can also check out this guide for tips on simple and inexpensive ways to learn English from home.
You won’t learn effectively by just passively exposing yourself to English. You’ve got to actively engage with the language. That means using it. Here’s a bunch of ways to engage in active language learning.
You’re never too old to learn English
You can learn to speak English no matter your age. All you need is a willingness to learn, a good study strategy, a good attitude, and great resources.
And if, after that long article, you still don’t believe that you can learn English at any age, take it from one of our members here at Leonardo English. As Coté says, “age is no barrier when it comes to learning a new language.” Read her story for proof!
Get it started learning today with Leonardo English.