We get it, you’re self-conscious about it. There’s no reason to be ashamed. Maybe it was that one time your friend started to converse in flawless French with the waiter for twenty minutes while you just sat there staring awkwardly at your soufflé. Or maybe it was that other time where one of your co-workers got that big promotion because they were able to converse with clients in Mandarin.
Life can be hard out there for us mono-linguists! Perhaps we just never got around to it huh? Maybe we just took too many classes and weren’t able to fit in that one Spanish elective. Whatever the case, you didn’t do it and find yourself wishing you did. Especially after fumbling around with Google Translate or being unable to make conversation with someone so you just smiled and nodded the whole time. All perfectly viable reasons.
“But I never got the chance!” Screams that tiny voice in your head. How’re you supposed to compete with all the kids these days in their fancy online language classes learning how to say this and how to say that? You had other schoolwork to do! How in the world were you supposed to make time to learn an entirely new language? And you know, of course, there’s no hope of learning one now. Everyone knows that children have a phenomenal ability to pick up new languages while adults struggle with basic sentence structure. Face it: You missed the bus when it comes to becoming bi-lingual and there’s no possible way you could start now.
Except that isn’t even close to true.
The truth is that older learners have every capacity to learn a new language as younger ones do. For quite a while linguists and cognitive psychologists generally agreed that the difference between older and younger learners was due to maturational changes in the brain and happened around the onset of puberty. This was later referred to as The Critical Period Hypothesis and gave a rather poor outlook to adult language learners. However, over the past few years, many researchers have started questioning this hypothesis.
In one 2003 study researchers Hakuta, Bialystock, and Wiley analyzed census data from over 2 million immigrants learning English for signs of a steep drop off in language-learning ability in adulthood. What they basically did was test two cut-off points, 15 and 20 years of age, and found that the sharp contrast between learners starting before and those starting after simply wasn’t there. They did find that language learning success did in fact decrease with age, but more gradually.
Wait, don’t panic yet I’m not finished! While they did find that those who were older had a harder time it did bring hope to the idea of learning a language in one’s later years. It particularly inspired another researcher named Gary Marcus who assumed that the same principle applied to learning a musical instrument and in his New Yorker article clearly explained that this was indeed false. While an adult’s brain may not be as malleable as a child’s it can still learn the information with time and incrementally.
So what’re you waiting for? Stop making excuses and start taking those Spanish lessons already!