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Am I Too Old to Learn a Second Language?

Am I Too Old to Learn a Second Language?

by Doug Bower

I primarily write about expatriation issues in Mexico, our adopted home. In fact, my wife and I just finished a "yet-to-be-published" ebook entitled: Sustainable Expatriatism. The research I've done for all my books and articles pertaining to expatriatism has clearly shown me that language is indeed the portal to the culture. This is a fact about which Cultural Analysts harp constantly: If you are going to learn the culture in your expatriation adventure, you've got to learn the language of the host country to which you've expatriated. Otherwise, in my opinion, you never become an expatriate.

Mexico is a case study about this issue. When we moved to Mexico in our middle forties, we stood out among the expat crowd. We weren't old, retired, wheeling about in scooters for people with ambulatory difficulties, or anything else that would indicate we were a part of the Jubilado Crowd. That is what we found in the Highlands of Mexico, like San Miguel de Allende, and on Mexico's Gold Coast. Most Gringo expats were retirees.

Soon after moving here, we began to discover that the vast majority of Gringos in Mexico do not speak Spanish even after living in the country for ten years or more. Incredibly, there are those who have lived in the country for thirty years or more and still do not know enough Spanish to save their lives—literally! And, of course, being the terminally curious person that I am, I had to know why.

I received this comment from a reader of one of my articles on this issue. Our exchange went like this:

A Reader's Response:

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

My Comments:

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.

"Affective factors such as motivation and self-confidence are very important in language learning. Many older learners fear failure more than their younger counterparts, maybe because they accept the stereotype of the older person as a poor language learner or because of previous unsuccessful attempts to learn a foreign language. When such learners are faced with a stressful, fast-paced learning situation, fear of failure only increases. The older person may also exhibit greater hesitancy in learning. Thus, teachers must be able to reduce anxiety and build self-confidence in the learner." (The Older Language Learner by Mary Schleppegrell)

It is also an ignorance issue in which the adult learner of a new language believes that the older he becomes, the less ability he has to learn a second language.

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 making mistakes and are not embarrassed when they do make mistakes.

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.

Consider the situation with 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: he 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 fluently.

Diego, from the time he was born (and maybe even in the womb) until attaining the 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, but 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 when trying to speak. 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.

Another issue that must be dealt with in the adult learner of a new language is trying to convince him that forking out a small fortune for classes that will teach him something about the language is not the road to take if initially what he wants is to know how to speak and understand spoken Spanish. Even though adults could figure this out, they don’t. I would love to meet an adult who took grammar classes and literature courses and who was able to reach the spoken fluency level he had achieved in his native tongue by the time his mother carted him off for his first day of school.

Really, think about this a moment or two. Did you attend a class to achieve the spoken fluency level you had when you started first grade? Did you learn first how to speak your native language before learning about the parts or components of your native tongue? You didn't learn how to conjugate a verb or read Chaucer before learning how to speak. So why do we as adults resist the idea based on more than forty years of research that we can indeed learn a second language and that enrolling in costly courses that teach us bucket loads of stuff about the language is not the way to begin?

"Older learners who have been exposed to a translation system rather than an immersion system are suspicious of an immersion system because it is not widely used. Furthermore, they seek translation that keeps them in the English way of thinking, preventing the second language from developing independently from the first language. Immersion systems have as their goal the elimination of internal translation. Furthermore, immersion systems provide the individual with authentic second language, enabling the person to achieve native-like fluency in the second language." (Harris Winitz, Ph.D., Language Development, K.C., Mo.)

Regarding the traditional methods for learning a second language, Dr. Winitz goes on to say:

"American systems concentrate so heavily on memorizing “surface” grammatical rules that they provide only a set of limited vocabulary items. One needs perhaps 20,000 words to begin to sound somewhat native-like, but 100,000 words should be the goal of the second-language learner. Additionally, classroom conversational instruction should be avoided because the students mostly hear the speech of fellow students that is incorrect and poorly pronounced. In some conversational classes 95% of the input is from fellow students rather than from the native speaker." (Harris Winitz, Ph.D., Language Development, K.C., Mo.)

If we want to expatriate to another country where the host country's language is different from our own, then we will have to deal with the language issue. Otherwise, all we will ever be are visitors (Cultural Imperialists?) and not expatriates. The answer to learning a second language is to completely overhaul our philosophy of language learning and turn to the identical method we unconsciously submitted to when learning our first language: Immersion.

We must seek true immersion. Immersion, as it is touted in most advertisements for learning your targeted language in a country in which it is spoken, is to come to a school overseas and sit in a class where the grammar is taught entirely in the language of choice. This is NOT immersion.

True or authentic immersion means to subject yourself to massive amounts of comprehensible or meaningful input. It is to seek a way to become exposed to the language much in the same way you did unconsciously to your first or native language. And, this is most certainly possible. Frankly, I don't believe you have to go to foreign country to do it.

If my reference to Cultural Imperialists seems a little harsh, listen to this:

"Cultural imperialism is the practice of promoting, distinguishing, separating, or artificially injecting the culture or language of one nation into another. It is usually the case that the former is a large, economically or militarily powerful nation and the latter is a smaller, less important one. Cultural imperialism can take the form of an active, formal policy or a general attitude. The term is usually used in a pejorative sense, usually in conjunction with a call to reject foreign influence." (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.)


A school in Zacatecas, Mexico, uses the Krashen, Long, and Scarcella approach. Its approach utilizes 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 language learning second.

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