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Can a 65-year-old guy with a tin ear learn Mandarin?
January 14, 2013 9:24 AM   Subscribe

Still working for a living, and enjoying it, but beginning to think about doing some extended traveling, perhaps in China. But to travel lengthily and effectively, it behooves me to learn the language, a task that, whatever the language, has challenged me all of my life. Do I have a shot at all of success, at my advanced age, and, if so, what does the community recommend for method, school, etc.?
posted by mudge1705 to Education (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
If you're asking if you, as someone who has a hard time learning languages, will be able to learn a language, the answer is: Not easily. Sorry, but learning Chinese is no different than learning any other language. If you can afford a private tutor, that would probably be the best way to go about it. Small group classes are also good. Pronunciation is tricky enough that I think Rosetta Stone or any other computer-based learning wouldn't work.

I don't think being 65 makes it harder to learn a language than 35. Not being ten is really the kicker - kids pick up languages faster than anyone.

I spent some time in China nearly a decade ago, and I spoke Mandarin quite well. Even so, most people would switch to English with me (if they could), even if I spoke Mandarin better than they spoke Chinese. It was extremely frustrating, and I learned to seek out people who couldn't speak English whenever possible. (I was in a city that is not Beijing or Shanghai - I'm sure even more people speak English now, especially in major cities).

But if you're not the sort of person who picks up language easily, that's just how your brain is wired. Learn as much as you can, but don't beat yourself up if fluency alludes you yet. You can definitely travel around China with the tiniest bit of Mandarin - and depending on where you're going, Mandarin may be next to useless - and a good attitude.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 9:47 AM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


You can read Benny the Irish Polyglot's famous Zen Habits essay for some contrarian inspiration.

If you want to pursue his method there is a great web site called The Mixxer which specializes in pairing people up for free language exchanges via Skype. This could also be a great way to make more contacts in China when you finally get traveling there.

I would also second ablazingsaddle's advice that hiring a private tutor (which can also be done over Skype for much cheaper than hiring someone based in the States) will see your level improve much more quickly than any learn at home or large class method.

What you need to do is maximize the amount of time you are actively using the language.

There may be a lot of naysayers out there but give it a shot and see what happens.
posted by the foreground at 9:57 AM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The only thing I will recommend is that to learn well you first have to learn not to be embarrassed. We all know that kids learn language more quickly and fluently. Some of that is inbuilt, some of that is sheer need, but a lot is the willingness to make many mistakes. Kids aren't so ashamed of fluffing pronunciation, making an ungrammatical sentence, or saying something downright wrong. If you want to learn a language well as a grownup, cast off the belief that you're going to get everything right from the start, or even that it is important to do so just because you're an adult. Accept that you're going to make somebody laugh with your screwups, and just enjoy being able to string a few words together which are at least understandable.

Remember, you're 65 in English, but you're a baby in Mandarin, and that's okay.
posted by Jehan at 10:10 AM on January 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I took community-based Mandarin classes for a few years and there were several senior citizens in the class with me who did just fine. The ones who did best were the ones who took the opportunity to use it a lot outside of class.
posted by treblemaker at 10:11 AM on January 14, 2013


It's worth a try - you'll pick up something rather than nothing if you at least give it a shot. As a long-time student of Mandarin, however, I would caution you not to set too ambitious goals, as Mandarin has a high learning curve. You will not be able to speak fluently in under 5 years without being immersed in the language. I think you may find that you learn the most while you're in China. Get a private tutor and a textbook geared towards those soon to be living in China (I can point you towards an excellent one if you're interested), and work diligently for at least an hour a day. If you can get a decent foundation of vocabulary and sentence structure before you go, you will learn a ton of Chinese while you're in China.

Mandarin is not an especially complicated language if your goal is simply speaking skills/conversation. The grammar is quite simple - no conjugation, different forms of the same verb for tense, etc. The reason we find it so difficult is simply because 1) It takes a while to get acclimated to and familiar with the language. 2) If you don't get your tones perfect, people will not understand you. 3) It takes a good amount of vocabulary to get off the ground into decent conversation (not just textbook conversations).

I've seen a lot of young and old students, both successful and miserable failures. Age is not what sets the successes apart from the failures - rather, it is an openminded-ness, a willingness to learn, humility, and a genuine and passionate curiosity to learn about both the language and the culture. Most important is the humility - those who were too afraid to speak up and make mistakes are those who failed the most. Only when you speak will you be heard, and thus corrected.
posted by krakus at 10:14 AM on January 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's doable but depends on how much time you put into it. Learning any new language requires a big investment of time, and you have to work on it consistently.

Jehan makes a very important point that you have to be uninhibited about making mistakes. I've too noticed that's one big advantage young children have in learning a language - they don't worry about saying something incorrectly.

Krakus also makes a good point that Mandarin is not grammatically complex at all. Nor is pronunciation particular difficult (every sound either exists in English or can be created with a combination of English sounds or mouth movements). The thing that trips up some learning is tones, but if you take a relaxed approach to learning tones rather than getting stressed out about it, it's really not very hard. I've seen many, many people learn Chinese, and presumably you can too.
posted by Dansaman at 10:36 AM on January 14, 2013


We all know that kids learn language more quickly and fluently.

We don't really know that. The body of research generally indicates that teenagers and adults acquire second languages better than young children, all other things being equal. The advantage that young children appear to demonstrate is facility with pronunciation. As some commenters have mentioned, the perceived advantage that children are thought to have is probably psychological/social. They don't care if they make a mistake in speaking. (this is also the same reason why young children do not do anything ironically)

So no, unless your age is causing general cognitive deterioration, your age should not impede your ability to learn. What will determine your success is your time and effort. I have spoken to these issues on AskMeFi before. Ultimately, what is going to matter is what the consequences are for you if you don't do this? Basically, failing has to be worse for you than the status quo.

As far as methods go, my preference is for the public domain materials from the US government through the FSI or DLI. They can be a bit dry but they are designed to get one up to speed fairly quickly. For pay materials, I generally favor the Teach Yourself series or the Colloquial series, but they vary by language and cannot speak to the Chinese editions since I've only dabbled in Mandarin to date, although it is on my short list.

I also recommend online language partners. ITalki and LiveMocha are two sites that immediately come to mind.

Drill vocabulary every day. I spend at least an hour on foreign language vocabulary every day unless disaster strikes. It is a big priority for me because I know if I don't, I will lose it. In the case of Chinese, Skritter is wonderful because it also teaches writing. (I use it for Japanese) An hour a day sounds like a lot, but I use my iPhone for the drills and do my practice during "down time" through the day such as waiting in line at the supermarket. A few minutes here and there over the course of a day really adds up.
posted by Tanizaki at 10:48 AM on January 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


We don't really know that. The body of research generally indicates that teenagers and adults acquire second languages better than young children, all other things being equal. The advantage that young children appear to demonstrate is facility with pronunciation. As some commenters have mentioned, the perceived advantage that children are thought to have is probably psychological/social. They don't care if they make a mistake in speaking. (this is also the same reason why young children do not do anything ironically)
That was exactly my point. Kids' ability to learn language is only partly inbuilt, and a lot is about an outlook or approach on learning which anybody can adopt.
posted by Jehan at 11:06 AM on January 14, 2013


If you're asking if you, as someone who has a hard time learning languages, will be able to learn a language, the answer is: Not easily.

Fuck that bullshit (pardon my French). Anyone can learn a foreign language at any time in life. I've met a number of uneducated Afghan taxi drivers who can't read or write in their native language speaking rather decent Swedish and most of these blokes are older than I am.

It is a matter of will and effort (or in the case of the Afghans in Sweden, necessity) - so not free - but it is not difficult once you get out of your mind that it is difficult. ANYONE. Absolutely anyone can do it.

So you do it. Having a second language expands your mind like nothing else.
posted by three blind mice at 11:11 AM on January 14, 2013


Three Blind Mice, I don't think it's controversial to say that some people are better at picking up languages than others. That has nothing to do with education or literacy in your native tongue.

It's absolutely right that necessity and immersion makes it easier to learn a language. As a non-Chinese-looking person in China, it's hard to get true immersion because so many people speak English and want to speak English with you. (If you can pass for Chinese, it's a different story). Traveling in remote areas changes this, of course; I don't know how restricted travel is in China now, but I remember it was once a very difficult place to wander around freely. In really remote parts of China, though, people may not speak any Mandarin. (This is probably changing, though - don't quote me!)

Another tip before you leave: Get used to different accents. Even though most people in China can speak Mandarin, regional accents can trip you up if you're not used to it. Harness the power of youtube and Chinese soap operas.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 11:40 AM on January 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Memrise (sorry, no link since I'm on the phone)
posted by pearlybob at 11:54 AM on January 14, 2013


Do I have a shot at all of success, at my advanced age, and, if so, what does the community recommend for method, school, etc.?

Find a native speaker to talk to. Doesn't even have to be a private tutor.
posted by capricorn at 2:21 PM on January 14, 2013


Used to work in a university language lab. Lots of elderly students older than 65 took advantage of an outreach program, and a lot of them did very well. Why? Because they focused on a goal, had a lifetime of good work habits, and were happy to search out situations in which they could use what little they had learned every day.

Tone languages are not hard if you immerse yourself in the sound. I did that with West African languages by listening to music and comedy tapes... a lot of music. Hours a day. But once you got that lyric in your head you could carry the grammar situations over to other situations. (Many languages have a feature in which the difference between "you" and "him/her" is only a tone difference.) Even today, years after studying it, my tones are still pretty good.
posted by zaelic at 3:31 PM on January 14, 2013


I'm a 59-year-old Japanese language learner. I also teach English as a second language so I know both ends of the struggle (and it really is, I think learning another language is one of the most difficult tasks). My advice is, take the Intro Mandarin classes at your local free university or adult school. After a few of those. move up to your local community college. Augment your learning with whatever else you can get -- Rosetta Stone, or maybe your library has some other learning software. Yes, native speakers can also help you, but you won't be having any but the most basic conversations with them until you've built up some vocabulary.

If you're a self-starter, maybe you'll make progress... but I encourage you to take real classes because the structure, quizzes and tests force you to study.

For the Western learner of Chinese, like Japanese or Korean, you also face the challenge of a mastering a new alphabet. Many learners of these languages disregard all that in the early stages. Maybe that makes it easier, if conversation is your primary goal.
posted by Rash at 3:47 PM on January 14, 2013


I think it's great you are learning a new language and have met many people developing proficiency in a new language after retirement (in their case it was Spanish). I am learning Spanish myself and have found the www.italki.com site very helpful. I use one teacher who teaches me grammar points, boring but necessary, and the other gives me conversation practice. Both are very good and professional and cost much less than paying for a typical tutor in my home city, never mind the travel time saved.

I have made a few penpals through www.mylanguageexchange.com too which can be helpful (the paid membership doesn't cost much and I think it's worth it).

Someone mentioned Benny the Irish Polglot and I find his blog interesting. There is another polyglot with a prodigious talent for languages by the name of Moses McCormick and you may gain something from his YouTube videos. He sells a course which complements following Teach Yourself or something equalivalent via his web site and I believe some coaching via Skype with the man himself is part of the package. I haven't bought that yet but plan too soon (but for Spanish).

http://roadrunninglanguagecamp.com/
posted by AuroraSky at 4:07 PM on January 14, 2013


As a non-Chinese-looking person in China, it's hard to get true immersion because so many people speak English and want to speak English with you.

Partially true, partially not. There are plenty of people in China (majority, actually) who cannot speak a lick of English (servers in restaurants, taxi drivers, people working at blue-collar jobs, people over age 50). Just go out and speak to these people, and you'll get plenty of immersion. Yes, lots of people at universities want to practice English. But many of them are reasonable and willing to speak Chinese with you if you persist. Also, many people are not comfortable speaking English, or not interested in it even if they know some. The aggressive english learners will come to you, but most people are not like that at all. I have lived in Chinese for several years and have had plenty of immersion in the language.

And for a more direct answer to the question: go for it! Agree with the above answer about Chinese grammar- it's really not complicated. Tones and pronunciation present a challenge, but that's ok! It's definitely doable.
posted by bearette at 3:35 AM on January 15, 2013


Thanks to all of the responders! Great, motivating answers!
posted by mudge1705 at 8:53 AM on January 15, 2013


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