I learn, you learn, he or she learns
February 9, 2016 6:28 AM   Subscribe

I would like to hear about learning a new language as a middle-aged adult.

Obviously there is no escaping an accent when learning as an adult, and the brain's major critical language learning period is decades gone. However, I am interested in hearing how difficult it might be to try to master a new language in mid-life, compared, say, to in one's 20s.
I am less interested in the total immersion experience that occurs with immigration than the experience of learning through formal language courses or self-administered tapes. Have you done this? Did you get very far?
If you or someone you know attempted to learn as an adult was it a language related to your native language, or from a different language family?
I would like to hear anecdotes/experiences/personal and subjective accounts of successes or failures with this, though if you also know of studies with data on this topic that's welcome too.
posted by flourpot to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I've been doing French for two years as an adult. I tried doing it alone with books and online courses but couldn't discipline myself to keep up a long term routine, so I'm now taking group classes once a week for a few hours, and that helps a lot. I also found a teacher via VerbalPlanet. (Italki also gets good reviews) to supplement. I've made good progress but don't feel I can really speak it yet.

But I enjoy learning languages. Each new word I learn delights me, like popping a grape in my mouth. I don't get depressed by slow progress because I have no ultimate goal. I just enjoy the journey. It seems most people think of language learning as digital: You either "learn" it, or not. Bu I see it as a continuum. You never "learn" it, not even your native language. You just move up or down the continuum.
posted by mono blanco at 6:50 AM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have been taking Spanish classes for a year and I'm moving into the B1 level next week. Many people in my class are much older than me. My grandparents were in their 60s when they learned French.

The main problem I observe is that with a busy work schedule, it is so hard to fit in practice everyday, which is necessary to make new grammar and vocabulary stick. Apart from that I don't notice too much difference than when I last learned a language at school in terms of method or level of difficulty. I am having the same challenges with numbers and pronouns I had in Italian, for instance. The brain is funny.

For me 2nding that the reason I decided to take classes is that without something I have to show up to every week, it is too easy to put off tapes, apps, books etc. I started learning with Michel Thomas and Duolingo and skipped the first couple of levels of classes because I didn't want to start with 'hello'. The Michel Thomas tapes are very good to get started, and travel to a country that speaks the language is a great motivator. I also work with many Spanish speakers so it's great that I can also test myself by giving short talks or writing emails in Spanish. I have also participated in Spanish discussions at conferences (mostly listening). Usage is essential to build and maintain skills.

Native speakers tell me I have a good accent, so it is possible to learn at any age. Be willing to make mistakes, accept that progress some weeks will be good and others will be slow. Enjoy it!
posted by wingless_angel at 7:02 AM on February 9, 2016

I had some Spanish classes in high school that didn't stick much (my mom's a Spanish speaker but for whatever reason it wasn't spoken in the house and we didn't study together) and I also studied Italian on and off for several years during grad school as part of my classwork. Now, about 15 years later, I'm studying Italian again by taking private lessons (that will maybe become very small group lessons eventually.) I don't have a real goal in mind, so this is just for pleasure.

The hardest thing is finding time to study. I try to supplement my classwork by listening to podcasts and using Duolingo, but retaining things is definitely an issue. But the deep pleasure of talking with an instructor, as bumbling as I am, is really great. There are days when I don't remember a thing, and days when I feel like I'm finally making some progress. Grammar is a giant struggle for me. I'm finding a lot of pleasure in the journey, though.
posted by PussKillian at 7:13 AM on February 9, 2016

I have been doing Duolingo German for about six months, starting just before my 35th birthday. It has been incredibly easy. I don't flatter myself that I know how to speak German well, and I can't yet read the newspaper (my goal), but it is not by any means difficult. One of my co-workers who grew up in Germany seems to think I'm doing pretty well. Full disclosure, though: languages come pretty easily to me. I aced both French and Spanish in high school, and was AP French student of the year my senior year. But even without that, I still think Duolingo makes it pretty easy.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:28 AM on February 9, 2016

I learned English in my 30s. School definitely plays a huge factor because grammar is pivotal to understand and speak any language. In my case, besides the immersion portion of it, what helps me a lot is reading a lot, listening to podcasts, and watch tv with closed captions. Also, taking classes of unrelated topics on the language you want to learn. I took a bakery class at the beginning. Building vocabulary gives you confidence and makes you less afraid to speak. It's totally doable, just get on it.
P.S, I'm Hispanic so English is quite different.
posted by 3dd at 7:32 AM on February 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

The research I know of on language acquisition suggests that there may be a critical period in the teens, but after you've passed that, your language learning skills don't decline very much, except for the natural slight decrease in memorization ability that comes as you get older -- it's probably harder to learn at 32 than 12, but from 32 to 42 to 52 there's not much change. I started learning Mandarin Chinese seriously about 3 years ago, around age 30, and I'm pretty happy with my progress -- I'm not fluent but I can read easy novels slowly, I can sort of understand easy TV, and sometimes I've been able to get by in work situations where I needed Chinese.

I have mostly done self-studying, with an 8-week class in there. I try to put an emphasis on easy input, and especially easy audio input -- so for me, that's been textbooks, podcasts for second language learners, graded readers, and now children's novels and TV dramas. I think the internet as a language-learning medium is really coming into its own in the past few years, with tools like DuoLingo, but especially with things like language exchange over Skype, and tutoring over Skype (which can be surprisingly cheap!), and being able to listen to music or vlogs or read blogs or tweets in your target language. I find podcasts to be more useful than tapes because a lot of these companies keep on producing new content week after week for years, and have lessons targeted to different situations or topics so you can pick and choose what you're interested in. (One of the first things I learned to say in Chinese was "I'm a vegetarian.") And spaced repetition tools like Anki and MemRise are really useful for vocabulary flashcards.

It takes more time and more input and more effort than anyone expects at first. (I was way more advanced than the other people in my Chinese class who'd been studying about as long as I had, just because they expected that an hour a week was enough to get anything done.) It's all about finding ways to engage in the language that are compelling enough that you look forward to doing them, whether that's the gamification of a program like DuoLingo or just finding a TV show that you look forward to watching.
posted by Jeanne at 7:45 AM on February 9, 2016

I have been taking Italian, once a week with a tutor, and with an Italian girlfriend who is a school principal and thus likes correcting me, for the last couple of years. In my case, it has been slow-going, but I am notoriously bad at languages (the only F's I ever received in school were for French and Spanish), and I am very bad about practicing and reviewing in between lessons. In fact, the main reason I pay for lessons is to force myself to at least address the book once a week. That said, I feel I could have made much better progress by spending more time each week on it, and specifically if I had dedicated two hours of review to every one hour we covered in class.

One thing that surprised me is that French and Spanish have not only not helped me with Italian, they have often been my enemy in terms of "false friends" (words that seem similar across languages but are not) and simply providing me with erroneous choices (I find that remembering the Spanish or French word for something often blocks my memory of the Italian word). I think this is a specific problem of learning as a (late) middle-aged adult, because one's memory is not as sharp as it once was.
posted by ubiquity at 8:19 AM on February 9, 2016

Hi, Im 27yrs old and I've studied Spanish using Babbel. The toughest thing is disciplining yourself but if you set a routine it will mold itself into your agenda. I used Babbel language for a couple months off and on and just recently took a trip to Costa Rica where i had to apply it. I can't say that i was fluent but i can say that i surprised myself and others. Never too late and I do 2 lessons a day and thats only 20 mins of the day. I hope this helped you.
posted by imagine_dragon at 8:39 AM on February 9, 2016

+1 for Michel Thomas. Genuinely fun.
posted by colie at 9:07 AM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

The only language other than English that I'm any good at is French. I started that as a kid. But I'm much better at it now (at 45) than I was as a teenager.

For me keeping that in practice has been a matter of finding stuff that's fun to do that happens to involve French. I get the occasional burst of enthusiasm that might be sufficient to motivate actual studying, but that's just not sustainable--I need things to do that I'll still feel compelled to do after a long day of work and putting the kid to bed. So, most of my pleasure reading I do in French, and various times that's been a lot of my TV and movie watching, too. And I've pursued an obsession with French comic books for a long time. In choosing what to watch or read next I try to be guided by whatever appeals to me most at the moment, less than by what I think might be "good for me".

I've also been lucky to find some congenial local Francophones who run regular local events in French and are patient with my muddling along. That takes a little more energy, but maybe having the external commitment to be somewhere makes up for that.
posted by bfields at 9:15 AM on February 9, 2016

I tried the Dueling Italian and got frustrated with my lack of feeling like I was advancing.

Thing is objectively I was advancing. You can see it.

And I was starting to pick out words here and there that I knew and occasionally could guess correctly what a sentence meant.

I'm 45 and suck at languages.

I would have probably kept up with it if I thought I was going back any time soon.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:28 AM on February 9, 2016

Something I've observed as a language instructor/frequent language class participant: older people are often more reluctant to look foolish, or to say something that is not exactly the statement they have in their minds, while younger people often don't seem to mind as much taking risks, messing up, sounding dumb, and being corrected. Of course this is 100% a generalization and totally dependent on the individual, but I have seen a lot of situations where adults who are very intelligent and successful in their non-language-learning life, because they are used to communicating and being understood and expressing complex thoughts and opinions, get very frustrated by the need to regress to a childlike state that is required for early language-learning. This ends up getting in their way when in other respects (memorization etc.) they are on the same page as everyone else.
posted by Owl of Athena at 9:45 AM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Same now (30) as when I was 13, except that I get caught up in other responsibilities and can't spend an hour a day doing serious, focused study and practice. When I have that going - time spent on focused practice - then I learn quickly still. When I stop and take a month off to focus on work and home life, I stop progressing and often backslide. There are fewer opportunities to practice, without a teacher, and even taking a class I know I wouldn't have the same focus to give it outside of class as I did when my job was school.

I have managed not to acquire any sense of shame in speaking terrible pidgin ("train where?" is more effective than "excuse me... Sir... May I please ask... Where is train?") or in walking around muttering to myself in a foreign language ("how would I have that last conversation in (language)?" Is one of my great tricks for learning and practicing with good focus - it makes me notice the things I wish I could say but can't and motivates me to fill in those gaps). But embarrassment in those areas would certainly slow the learning process.
posted by Lady Li at 10:53 AM on February 9, 2016

My mother is German. She spoke no English when she met my father. She says she learned a lot of English by watching TV.

I have studied both German and French. I took French in high school and college starting at age 17. I did language tapes for German, though I grew up hearing it and already knew a few words. I can engage in conversational German and I have an ear for it. I cannot successfully follow the news and reading and writing is pretty bad. I do a bit better at reading French but I have a harder time with understanding spoken French or trying to speak it. I never really developed an ear for it, like I have with German.

I have heard it can help to have posters and labels all over the house or listen to audio tapes in your sleep. Some actors listen to audio tapes in their sleep to help with getting the right accent for a role.
posted by Michele in California at 11:30 AM on February 9, 2016

Here's the tl;dr answer to "how difficult it might be to try to master a new language in mid-life, compared, say, to in one's 20s.": just as hard as it is for anyone else. Acquiring a language is hard for children acquiring their first language. It takes years of constant exposure to a language for a child to speak in complete sentences. Do not think that children or younger people have it easy. In a bit more detail...

Obviously there is no escaping an accent when learning as an adult, and the brain's major critical language learning period is decades gone.

An accent is not an obstacle to language proficiency unless it prevents you from being understood. Arnold Schwarzenegger has an accent but is a fluent speaker of English. Also, the critical period hypothesis is regarding first language acquisition, not second language acquisition. In fact, there is research that suggests that adults are better language learners because they already know about language and how it works i.e. what is a verb or how a sentence works.

I am a language-learning hobbyist. My first serous study was French in junior high and high school although the only one I hold myself out as speaking at a business-proficient level is Japanese, which I started at 20 (I'm 40 now). I do not think there is any appreciable difference between how a 12 year old or a 20 year old or a 50 year old learns a second language.

A language is a skill so the key is consistency. It is much better to spend 30 minutes a day than three hours on a Saturday. I find classrooms to be utterly useless because I do not see the point in hearing other non-native speakers talking about "what color is your shirt". I prefer to use a lot of input and do most of my studying on my own. I generally find a well-received text and follow it. Accompanying audio recordings are a must, combined with an SRS flash card system. Duolingo can be a fun supplement but not a main course of study, in my view.

Languages I have studied in my late 30s, either brand new or to reactivate, are French, Spanish, Norwegian, Koine and modern Greek, Mandarin, Levantine Arabic and Basque (I am easily distracted). These are all Indo-European with the exception of Mandarin, Arabic, and Basque. Languages that are more closely related to your native language are generally easier to learn, although I find much of Mandarin to be very straightforward compared to many Indo-European languages. Spanish (reactivating) and Norwegian (brand new) are the two am focusing on at present, so I am curious to see how they pan out, more especially the Norwegian.

I have no idea if any of this has helped you but I have observed that many people spend more time reading about language learning than actually learning a language. Please don't be one of those people.
posted by Tanizaki at 3:32 PM on February 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you have hearing loss, you may have to work harder at pronunciation. My father is 7 years older than my mother, but he picks up words faster than she does because he has better hearing.
posted by 1smartcookie at 5:21 PM on February 9, 2016

I have found it easier to learn languages as an adult because being that many years further in to using my first language and at higher levels than as a child has given me a greater understanding of how languages work and that gives me little 'ah ha!' moments in subsequent languages.

I agree with someone above who said adults might be reluctant to look silly and make mistakes, but at the same time, teenagers are even worse with that (IMO) and older adults who are relaxed in the class setting (which I think comes down to how the teacher runs the class) can let go of those inhabitions.

re: accents - think about people you know who speak english as a second language. You don't expect a native accent, do you? Yet we tend to be so hard on ourselves when we are the learner. Really, people are going to have an accent in anything but their mother tongue. That's not a failing - you can still achieve proficiency if you put in the time and effort and no point in beating yourself up over something near impossible to overcome.
posted by kitten magic at 10:11 PM on February 9, 2016

Learning new languages as an adult is one of my favorite hobbies. It is absolutely do-able, and can be a lot of fun.

I got a little bit of Spanish in grade school, started French and German in high school, and took one semester each of Italian and Russian at community college (some of the best college instruction I ever had). I have tried to continue practicing and improving all those languages (with HIGHLY varying levels of dedication), and three years ago, I started trying to learn Japanese, completely on my own, with no classes.

I am interested in hearing how difficult it might be to try to master a new language in mid-life, compared, say, to in one's 20s.

Having studied languages in my 20s and in mid-life, I can say I haven't encountered any difference. Progress is faster if you can devote more time to it; I was able to devote more time to it in my 20s, and I had the incentive of regular classes to make me keep studying regularly, but on the other hand, now I know a lot more about memory tricks to help with vocabulary and better study techniques.

I am less interested in the total immersion experience that occurs with immigration than the experience of learning through formal language courses or self-administered tapes. Have you done this? Did you get very far?

Yes, this is what I'm doing now, and I do feel like I'm making good progress (considering I put in a lot less time than is recommended - I have a "Japanese lesson" once a week when I sit down for two hours and go over a recorded lesson or work through a children's book or do some grammar exercises, and then I do some listen-and-repeat stuff while I'm out on walks during the week; it doesn't add up to much). I've worked through the Michel Thomas materials and the 3-level Pimsleur series from my library (although some of the Pimsleurs were missing, so I had to sort of jump ahead, but it was fine), and I'm now working with the Assimil Japanese With Ease series, which I highly recommend. I've been pretty informal about all this and keep dipping in and out of different books and materials depending on my interest, but I can definitely see and sense how much I've learned compared to, say, a year ago.

If you or someone you know attempted to learn as an adult was it a language related to your native language, or from a different language family?

I got interested in Japanese precisely because it is so different from the other languages I've studied. I won't be ready for a new language for a while (I have plenty to keep me busy at the moment), but I'm looking forward to trying Arabic, Urdu, or Korean next.

I would like to hear anecdotes/experiences/personal and subjective accounts of successes or failures with this, though if you also know of studies with data on this topic that's welcome too.

I think the important thing here is how you, personally, define success and failure. Do you want to learn to speak and read like a native? That will almost certainly require immersion, but (as Tanizaki points out) that's pretty true no matter what your age, child, teen, or adult. On the other hand, if your goal is to expand your horizons, exercise your mind, get more enjoyment from movies in your target language, and give yourself an advantage if you ever travel to a country where your language is spoken, I heartily encourage you to give it a try. It can be so much fun - work, sure, but so much fun - and middle-aged adults can definitely learn enough to express themselves and sample another culture.

If you're interested, please take a look at the How to Learn Any Language forum and the newer, related Language Learners forum.

Good luck!
posted by kristi at 10:50 AM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

« Older How can I find the Time Warner Cable "cable" in my...   |   Project Information from Clients Minus Email Hell Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.