There’s a popular idea that it’s easy to learn a language as a child and after a certain age it’s just not possible. When you look beyond the headlines, there’s not a lot of support for this theory. It’s no surprise that there’s little data to back this up, since it would be incredibly difficult to prove that adults can’t learn a language. The studies we have are of limited utility. Things work differently in the laboratory than they do in the real world and when we study things in the real world there are endless variables we can’t account for.
If you’re looking for an excuse to not learn another language, no one will question you if you say you’re just too old to learn anything new. Still, it’s not true that you can’t learn a language after the age of 10 or 18 or 20 or whatever the headline you saw said.
You don’t have a calcified old brain incapable of learning. There are a zillion studies on how this or that changes your brain — because everything we do changes our brain. Our brains keep changing throughout our lives and, unless you have a diagnosed condition besides having your wisdom teeth come in, there’s no scientific reason we can’t learn a new language.
Obviously, I’m not an expert on studying languages. I’m not an expert on anything. I just have lots of opinions and I’m learning a new language as I near the age of 40.
Kids don’t learn languages easily
It’s baffling that people think kids learn everything so quickly, because kids are terrible at pretty much everything. Kids who have watched their parents cook every single day of their lives can’t be trusted to not injure themselves with a knife or the stove. Kids are old enough to be sent to school before they can even tie their shoes. When was the last time you saw a three year old discuss tax strategies with their financial planner, talk their way out of a parking ticket, or even order at a restaurant?
Kids may be speaking at four, but they’re barely coherent. As someone who doesn’t spend much time around kids, and thus isn’t versed in kid-speak, it can be a struggle to understand anyone under the age of 12. A 12 year old has been studying their native language nearly every waking hour since birth…or longer, considering they can hear from the womb. Any adult studying a language will certainly be coherent in day-to-day conversations in far less than 12 years of study. We don’t expect children to use complex grammar or have a sophisticated vocabulary. We cheer little kids on for stringing together enough of the right words for us to guess what they mean.
After studying French for four months I went to the library and picked up a range of children’s books. Les aventures du Capitaine Bobette was a struggle, while Super Chien was a more my level. I worked my way through both series. I read them all aloud. I expected to need to be able to write well in French, so I was also copying the stories out on paper to create physical memories for the grammar and spelling. Two months later I could read YA graphic novels like Roller Girl and Le Club des Baby-Sitters. This was a great relief, because I needed a break from talking animals and anything involving magic. Now, eight months in, I can read books for teenagers, like Clovis, and make sense of most things written for adults.
While my progress didn’t feel particularly fast, it took me far longer to reach that level in my native language. Even with the second language I started learning at 13, I still couldn’t comfortably read a novel after six years. I could, however, certainly speak German just as well as a six year old.
You can study a language and never learn it
It takes more than simply sitting in a classroom or being immersed in a language to pick it up.
I spent a summer doing a study abroad in Germany during college. I’d signed up for an art history program, which was cancelled at the last minute, so they stuck me in a language course I’d already taken. I ditched my classes and spent my days in museums and galleries. I didn’t really talk to anyone beyond small talk with shopkeepers and asking directions, so my conversation skills didn’t improve.
My German got worse in the three months I spent there after college. My roommates had been learning English before I moved in with them, so they had established their apartment as an English-only space. I was meeting people through CouchSurfing, so most of them spoke English better than German. The CouchSurfers I befriended were eager to take a break from struggling to use their German all day at work. I did speak German at my internship, which was a real struggle, but mostly they were excited to have a native English speaker to edit things.
I was grateful for so many opportunities to avoid practicing German. I was already too mortified by my faux pas in life to further embarrass myself by speaking my awful German. Since everyone spoke English better than I spoke German, it felt like I was doing us all a favor by not slowing everything down and subjecting them to my mistakes.
I’ve spent some time immersed in French in Montreal without learning anything. The second time I spent a month in Montreal I even stayed in a Francophone neighborhood, where I regularly encountered people who did not speak English. On the few occasions where I could have benefited from speaking French at the dog park, the market, and restaurants, we always got through it with mime.
I know a lot of people who spoke Spanish at home as small children and who are barely conversational today. I know plenty of Canadians who took French throughout their school years and yet have language skills that max out after a day of playing tourist in Quebec City. I studied German for six years and maxed out at running errands and making small talk.
Why kids seem to have an easier time learning languages
People react with horror when they learn that my mother taught German and Spanish, yet didn’t teach me either language as a child. I don’t feel like I missed out on some critical moment and now she’s ruined my ability to learn languages forever. No one has ever thought anything of the fact that my dad didn’t teach me C++. There are lots of things my parents know that they never taught me. My mom learned German and Spanish in school, what would stop me from doing the same?
Why do we think kids learn languages so easily? Kids are used to being foolish. They say the wrong thing all the time and we think nothing of it. The adults around them patiently wait for them to find the right words, gently nudging them along the path. When they say something wildly inappropriate we chuckle at how kids say the darndest things! We don’t unanimously decide never to invite them to a party again or fire them for ruining a presentation. If we held ourselves to the standards we held children to, adults would be considered incredibly fast learners.
Kids who sit there quietly, listening to the adults around them, talk are praised for being well behaved. If an adult is quietly sitting there listening to your conversation, they’re a creep. As an adult it’s hard to have the opportunity to experience authentic language, even when living in a place where that language is spoken. You have to understand it well enough to participate or it’s weird for you to be there.
Kids are curious and have the time to be curious. That’s their job. As adults, we already have jobs. Deciding to spend our time studying a new language requires we not do any number of other things that seem important or fun. Having time for curiosity is a luxury. It’s a lot easier to find time to listen to a neat podcast or fall down an internet rabbit hole about how something is made than to spend months and years to learn a language.
The thing that confuses me most about people who claim kids learn languages easily is that kids don’t seem to be enjoying the process of learning their native language. They throw tantrums all the time when they don’t understand us or can’t make themselves understood. They shriek with rage. They throw themselves on the ground in despair. They fall mute. They literally rend their garments in anguish. As adults, we don’t have that option.
Kids don’t have much of a choice as to whether or not they learn whatever languages the adults around them are speaking. Learning a language is hard. Living without being able to understand or speak the language you’re surrounded by is even harder. Some people do communicate non-verbally, which limits their world to what they can access through specialized communication devices and the people who have taken the time to learn how to communicate with them. There are people who communicate by pointing to pictures, which is also an option for travelers who don’t speak the local language.
Learning a second language in the 90s was awful
So many people have regrets about not learning a second language when they were younger, assuming it would have been easier. Hate on the internet and smartphones all you want, but they make learning a language a lot easier. Learning a language today is so much better than it was in the late 90s. It’s also a lot less expensive.
If we’d learned a language on our own in the 90s, it would have meant going to the library and picking up French for Dummies or another book full of stilted dialogues, phrases to memorize, and grammar drills. If you were lucky they came with a plastic book of cassette tapes or CDs.
If you wanted to practice your listening comprehension, the easiest option was to get read-along children’s books. I can still hear that time to turn the page chime. My dad would embarrass me by signing songs from My Little Pony and Care Bears auf Deutsch while driving my friends and I to the mall.
There wasn’t a simple way to watch German movies and TV. We paid extra to get a German TV channel once it became an option. DVDs and VHS tapes had region codes, so we had a special DVD and VHS player in order to watch movies from Europe. My dad would buy boxes of a dozen movies in a genre and we’d get an incredibly strange assortment. He did buy a Criterion Collection set in German, which was useful for sounding smart at parties in college.
Why we struggle to learn a new language
Adults who live routine lives have often forgotten how to learn. We’re used to knowing what we’re doing and assuming that if we’re lost something has gone wrong. Trying to learn a new language requires we remember how to be open to new experiences, open to looking foolish, and open to being confused. If you’re used to traveling, you’re already primed to learn a new language. You have more motivation, sure, but you’ve also embarrassed yourself, gotten lost, and unintentionally offended someone recently. Those things seem less like a big deal and you know that it’s ultimately worth the hassle.
Being totally lost doesn’t mean you’ll never figure it out and should just give up. If you’re not getting confused, you’re not pushing yourself. Adult language learners have the option to quit when things get challenging and many of them do. There is no way to learn a new skill, be it speaking a language or playing a sport, without making mistakes. A lot of mistakes. If you don’t want to make your mistakes in public, find opportunities to practice where you feel comfortable getting things wrong.
We don’t learn by memorizing a list of rules. When we’re speaking English we don’t go through an if/then sequence to construct a sentence. We just know what sounds right. I can attest that it’s possible to learn a language without studying grammar, since I grew up in the era of whole language skills.
Even kids who do endless grammar drills in elementary school do so after years of learning the language through immersion at home. They already speak the language before they’re taught grammar. My focus in the beginning is on using the language and being understood. You can get a lot of the grammar wrong and still get your point across! The finer points of grammar can come later.
Kids are far more likely to be taught vocabulary and grammar while they’re doing things. Each time we’re baking cookies with a child we identify each item we’re using and narrate the steps as we do them. We do this dozens, if not hundreds or thousands, of times before kids remember all of it. Yet adults will read a few pages in a language textbook or watch a YouTube video and expect themselves to remember it all.
Learning a language requires a lot of exposure to the language and practice using it. If you’re living in an area where you’re using that language all day, the amount of extra time you need to study is minimal. If you’re learning a language independently, it’s a huge time commitment.
How to learn a language
Other people who’ve immigrated to Canada kept telling me I could get free French classes, but every time I tried to sign up I was told I didn’t qualify because I speak English. Eventually, I did manage to get myself enrolled in a French class funded by the Canadian government. It was a reminder that I may be a huge nerd, but I’m not a very good student. My teacher is great. My classmates are engaged. I’m somehow simultaneously bored because it’s too easy and lost because it’s too hard. Sitting still and paying attention is a huge struggle.
I’ve had a much easier time learning the basics from Rosetta Stone and DuoLingo. Rosetta Stone isn’t as engaging as DuoLingo, but it’s nice to have the grammar explained in different ways and have the vocabulary presented in a different order. Plus, it’s easy to skip sections if I feel like I’ve already gotten the gist of things. DuoLingo is addictive. Thankfully, they’ve made the point system increasingly arbitrary, which has helped me stay focused on working my way through the course rather than boosting my points.
One of the best parts of DuoLingo is how it encourages you to practice every day, even if only for five minutes. Practicing every day is essential. The easier you can make it to integrate studying into your routines, the easier it will be to actually reach a conversational level, rather than floundering in the morass of knowing some words and phrases you can’t actually conjure up when you need them.
DuoLingo has evolved and expanded over the years and has different offerings for different languages. Its French course has a huge amount of content, much more than some other languages. There are also interactive stories, a daily journal prompt, a podcast that’s not just the news, and online conversation groups. The content is relevant and engaging.
In my French class, we read through a list of vocabulary, we drill the numbers and alphabet, then we study grammar, and we end by taking turns reading a dialog. I cannot make myself pay attention to the grammar lessons because I am so profoundly uninterested. I know it’s important, but I can’t make myself care. Just like I aced chemistry while struggling with algebra, I have no problem learning the grammar when it’s fed to me in a situation where it feels relevant. DuoLingo and Rosetta Stone both throw me into a situation where I have to figure out the pattern myself, while my teacher just tells me. I need it to be a puzzle to solve. Plus, I don’t think about rules when I’m speaking, so knowing a rule doesn’t help unless I’m copy editing. I need to keep hearing it until I can recognize what sounds right and what sounds wrong.
At the suggestion of my teacher, I started reading comic books before I felt like I knew enough French to read anything. I worked my way up from comics for little kids to YA graphic novels. There are some fantastic graphic novels out there and the format makes more advanced material accessible. I also like reading (and listening to) the daily article on Encyclopædia Universalis to diversify my vocabulary. There’s also L’Encyclopedie Decouverte, which looks like I made it in 1998.
When I’m reading books or watching TV in French, I try not to stop to look up words. I’ve found that when I look up words I’m more apt to forget them, while I remember them if I figure it out from context. It’s also a lot less fun to keep stopping to look things up, since then I can’t get lost in the story. By crossing the boundaries of my knowledge, I find myself curious about the grammar and usage. When I can’t figure out something on my own and find myself looking up a grammar and usage explanations online, I can actually pay attention because I’m motivated by my own curiosity.
The only money I’ve spent learning French so far was a fine because a puppy chewed one of my library books. My French classes are paid for by the government. DuoLingo is free, although it has ads. I get Rosetta Stone through the library. I have access to several free conversation practice groups, including ones organized by the library, DuoLingo, and my language program. Some universities open their conversation groups to members of the community and there are lots on Meetup. Quite a few TV stations have content available online without a paywall and the library has movies in French. There are plenty of other apps and tools I tried out, getting access because they’re freemium or available through the library.
You don’t need to become fluent
It has been shown that children can learn a new language to the level where they are considered native speakers, while adults almost never reach this level. Well, sure. The thing is, you don’t need to speak a language at a native level.
I was surprised to learn that to be considered officially bilingual in Canada, you only need to be at a B2 level in both English and French.
If you can’t make it through an academic text in any language, you’re not alone. Most people are not at a C1 or C2 in their native tongue. When I briefly worked as an editor for the newsletter of a 55+ community, it was abundantly clear that spell check and grammar check are not responsible for the degradation of the English language. Their submissions were no more coherent than anything you’d find in a drunk text message. Then I worked with engineers.
Lots of people are functionally illiterate. Lots of people have terrible grammar. You can be one of them.
Do whatever the equivalent of calling the library the liberry is. Use the wrong to, too, or two. Have alot. Embrace the freedom of not knowing anything about the debate over the serial comma.
You can live in a place without a problem at the A2 level. Reaching the B1 level is enough to form friendships. Your language abilities will increase to the level you need.
There’s a lot of emphasis on passing as a native by learning all the slang and getting rid of your accent. As someone who went to years of speech therapy as a child, I have zero interest in doing that again. If you want to torture yourself, check out the Pronunciator. I don’t plan on working as a spy, so I don’t see the point of trying to trick people into thinking I’m French or German. My goal is to understand and be understood. My horrendous accent is part of the package.