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My Late-Life Language Learning, Part 1: Over-70s Can Learn a Language Too! Posted by on Jul 24, 2013 in Archived Posts

At over 70-years-old, Richard G. Mills has done a little bit of everything. For more than 30 years, Mills has been the Managing Principal and an owner of Consulting Services, a small consultancy that assists large corporations to strategically exploit information technology. Prior to founding Consulting Services, Mills’ joined Citibank as Vice President and de facto CIO.  Mills also spent fourteen years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, acquiring three degrees while serving as a member of the faculty and directing the campus computing facilities. Between his stints at MIT, Mills’ adventures ranged from working with a software start-up to serving three years in the U.S. Air Force. A self-proclaimed “old, retired guy”, Mills is now on to his latest adventure: learning French.

There’s a lot of information out there – scientifically-based and otherwise – about the decline of one’s learning ability with increasing age, and a lot of it is true.  Language-learning ability is probably (folks still argue about this) at its best in very young children, who seem to have a short-lived special ability to acquire language.  But that disappears quickly, and we’re left with the more usual variety of learning ability – and that is the ability that fades slowly, beginning maybe in the ‘teens or twenties, through the rest of adult life.

I knew all that, but I didn’t much care; I went ahead and learned a lot of French anyway.  So I am a sort of “living proof” that an old retired guy can learn a new language.  That is, I am an old, semi-retired guy, and I have learned and continue to learn enough of a new language to get along pretty well in it.

So, QED – an old dog can learn a new trick…or a new language.

Using what I’ve learned I can read the headlines on the website of the Paris daily paper, Le Figaro. If I find an article in it that interests me, I can click on a link and read the full story, and with great comprehension, too, recognizing well over 90% of the words I encounter.  It is true, though, that when I try reading Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in the original French, I do need to have handy a good French dictionary.  But Victor Hugo is a tough test, even for many native French speakers!

I’ve started trying to get to Paris maybe once a year, to check out my progress in the language.  My wife and I live there, like the locals, for a month or so, and in our daily lives – at the café, in the restaurants, at the market, on the Métro – I have discovered that I really do get along fine in the language.  Can a local who sprays rapid-fire “street French” at me still leave me in the dust?  You bet he (or more often, she!) can.  But all of them – these are great people – are happy to slow down and say it again, and when they do that, I’m back to getting along just fine.

Was it easy? Is it easy to learn a new language?  Some gym instructor once said, “If you want to tighten up them abs, you gotta do them crunches!”

And well, sorry, but there are “crunches” involved in learning a language, too – each new word you learn is another crunch, and let’s just say it takes a lot of crunches to get those abs to show.  You have to be able to recognize these new words orally and in print, and you have to be able to write and speak them – correctly.  And “writing them correctly,” in French, means with all those funny little diacritical marks that make the difference between “or” (ou) and “where” ().

So you see?  An old retired guy, who for prior language training has had only two semesters of high-school Latin, really can learn a new language.  Doing it has been a bit of a journey, and I’m going to try to tell you something about what it’s been, and continues to be, like.

So, stay tuned…

À bientôt!

Continue the journey in Part 2!

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  1. Laly:

    AMAZING! I am feeling so encouraged with your experience on learning another language!

  2. Duncan:

    A welcome example of ‘living proof’ as I’m 48 and attempting to speak Polish. I should say learning Polish and yes maybe I should/will have holiday in Poland yearly to prove my ability. So thank you Rickard Mills, If you can do it I’ll accept this as a challenge. I hardly go abroad and this challenge makes me nervous to think how I will cope. Well, best foot forward!

    • meaghan:

      @Duncan With that attitude, you’re already on the right track! 🙂

  3. Mary Ann Niemczura, Ph.D.:

    One is never too old to learn another language. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I admire your spirit and tenacity. As a former Fulbrighter (twice to Germany), I say kudos to all who learn another language and who become tolerant individuals in the process and world class citizens. Still a teacher of German in year 48 and loving every moment. Read about it in A Past Worth Telling.

  4. Richard:

    I’m studying Chinese in my late 70’s. Have some prior/earlier experience, some initial study 30 years ago, a first semester course at UofA. in the late 90’s and restarted Chinese 5-7 years ago. Complications….slow memory, I live in Taiwan 2-3 months a year and Taiwanese Mandarin has many differences with Standard Mandarin.

    I went until a year ago thinking I understood the tones but discovered that I really had no real ability to detect them…spent the last year…and will spend more…learning the tones to about 500 words I thought I already knew.

    But…I’m having fun and finding out a lot of things about the language and the culture behind it.

    Would enjoy hearing from anyone with a similar experience. Perhaps we can share ideas.

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