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We’re all familiar with the famous adage “Children’s brains are like sponges.” People often make this reference to children in the developmental stages who are learning a language for the first time. It’s always amazing to see a child pick up a language just by listening. It’s even more amazing to witness children who live in multi-cultural households and are exposed to two languages pick up both fairly rapidly.
I have studied my two-year old son’s language development in recent months. His mother speaks Russian to him and I speak English or French. I have picked up a few primitive phrases of Russian over the last few years but nothing that would allow me to carry on a conversation with a native speaker. My son, on the other hand, has gone from not being able to speak a single word of Russian to formulating short sentences within a few months.
So I began to wonder, “Are adults who want to learn a foreign language really at a disadvantage simply because of their age?”
I recently picked up The Week magazine and read about a study done on older adults and their ability to absorb and retrieve information. The study revealed the reason why older adults tend to forget things is not because their brains don’t work as well as they used to, but because their heads are crammed with so much information that finding the correct piece of “data” takes more time. This is akin to a librarian trying to find a book in the Library of Congress* as opposed to a community library in a small town. Older brains are like the LOC while younger brains are like the community library. Does that make you feel better?
So is there any hope of learning a foreign language as you get older? Absolutely! It’s not that adults are at a disadvantage compared to children; it’s just that their brains process information differently.
Here are 5 things adults have going for them when learning a foreign language:
1. All adults are already fluent in their native language. They have acquired, over a number of years, the skills necessary to express themselves clearly and completely in one language. Children have to start from scratch with no previous experience from which to draw upon.
2. Adults may find it easier to learn languages that are similar to their native tongue. A number of languages share words with English or may have a similar syntax such as French, Swedish, Dutch, Italian, etc. The English language contains over 8,000 words derived from French alone. So you may be speaking French and not even know it! Once again, children do not have this handy frame of reference. They must build their vocabulary and learn how to put words together to create meaningful sentences.
3. Adults have access to materials that may facilitate foreign language learning. They can use books, audiotapes, software and other learning aids. Children must listen to others speak to pick up the language.
4. Adults have the ability to recognize mistakes when learning a foreign language. If a parent uses poor grammar, the child will pick up the mistakes unknowingly and may find it more difficult to correct those mistakes later on.
5. Adults have a desire to learn. This can be a powerful motivator. Adults can also choose to delve more deeply into language learning as they become more proficient. A child may not have that opportunity until later in life.
So if you’re an adult struggling to learn a foreign language and are considering throwing in the proverbial towel, remember that your brain is like the Library of Congress. You might find it more challenging as you get older but remember that your brain works differently than a child’s and that you are equipped with a different set of tools that make the effort worthwhile. So enjoy the experience!
*If you’re wondering how many books the Library of Congress contains, the number is 36 million. It’s the largest library in the world (http://www.loc.gov/about/fascinating-facts/).