Articles for Teachers

Am I too Old to Learn a Second Language?
By:Douglas Bower


"It has been documented that the older one gets the more difficult it becomes to learn a foreign language."


Actually, there is no credible evidence to show that the older one becomes the more difficult it is to learn a foreign language. This belief is almost an urban myth and is not linguistically sound.

It is an emotional issue that prevents adults from trying and succeeding to learn Spanish.

Researchers Krashen, Long, and Scarcella showed that,

“Studies comparing the rate of second language acquisition in children and adults have shown that although children may have an advantage in achieving native-like fluency in the long run, adults actually learn languages more quickly than children in the early stages. (Krashen, Long, and Scarcella, 1979).”

The conclusion this study draws is adults can develop a working ability in the target language much faster than a child can.

So just where did this hideous stereotype about adults learning foreign language originate? It came from some very old science.

There used to be a theory on “brain development” from the 1960’s that taught that there was a “crucial period” an individual had before the brain lost its “plasticity,” making learning a second language too difficult. (Lenneberg, 1967)

It was a belief that if you didn’t get your second language learning done before puberty, your goose was pretty well cooked.

Modern studies have shown though some differences between how a child and an adult learns a second language do exist, the older learner has the distinct advantage. The adult learner of Spanish can learn the language faster because of the following:

The adult’s maturely-developed brain has the superior ability to understand the relationship between semantics and grammar.

The adult’s brain is more mature in its ability to absorb vocabulary, grammatical structures, and to make more “higher order” generalizations and associations.

The adult learner’s better-developed brain is better at “putting together all the pieces” with a more developed long-term memory.

The biggest obstacle for the adult is the emotional factor. Adults have bought into the myth that they just cannot do it. They are also afraid of making fools of themselves. I have often thought this is the reason children seem to learn Spanish faster than adults do—they are not afraid of the embarrassment factor.

Children also seem to learn Spanish faster because of the natural method to which they resort. They approach learning a foreign language in the identical manner they did when they learned their native language. If you have children, you witnessed this event. Was there not a time when you just knew that your “yet-to-speak anything other than goo-goo and ga-ga” child understood far more than he was letting on?

A chief problem is in the phrase, "language learning." What most people do not realize is there is a difference between language acquisition and language learning. Language acquisition, the ability to engage in spoken fluency, involves a different area of the brain than does language learning.

Language learning is what happens when you learn grammar rules, syntax, and constructions. It is what someone does when he wants to learn to become an exegete of written text. Language acquisition is the development of spoken fluency and is what most of us want to do: Speak the Language!

One comes before the other. Acquisition comes before learning. Long before you knew the difference between a verb and a pronoun, you had a high degree of spoken fluency.

Think of my little friend Diego. When I met him here in Guanajuato, all he could do was say words. He could not construct a sentence. He was too young. But, he did what we all did when we learned our first language: we listened. This is how language acquisition comes about. We have an intense period of just listening. Then we try words. Soon, we experiment with sentences while continuing to listen to everyone around us until one day we can speak.

Diego, from the time he was born (and maybe even in the womb) until his fresh six years he has now, all he did was hear Spanish. Non-stop bombardment of his native tongue. Never once during his young six years did he know a part of speech. Never did anyone require him to parse a verb, write a sentence, or recite the parts of speech. He still can't read but is recognizing words. He has developed a HIGH DEGREE of spoken fluency and still cannot read or write a word of Spanish or tell you the parts of speech.

This is where we adults screw up. We take the unsound, grammar-first approach and develop an ability to interpret and translate written text. However, we can hardly string two words together in speech. We are taught incorrectly. We are, in traditional classes, taught using the wrong approach.

Just think of having the spoken fluency of a 6-year-old Mexican child! I would kill for that. And yet, what do we adults do? We pay for classes that require us to learn translation techniques and wonder why we spent all that money when we cannot speak the language?

A school in Zacatecas, Mexico, uses the Krashen, Long, and Scarcella approach. Its textbooks utilize the linguistic science I have alluded to in this article. I would recommend this school above all others since it is sound in its science and teaches language acquisition first and then language learning second.

Go to Google and type in: Fenix Language Institute.

Doug Bower is a freelance writer and book author. His most recent writing credits include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Houston Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Associated Content, Transitions Abroad, International Living, Escape Artist, and The Front Porch Syndicate.

He is founder of Mexican Living Print & eBooks.

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