Does learning a language get harder the older you get?


Since I started learning Spanish a year ago it certainly feels that way! I look at myself compared to my young english learners and feel so jealous at the way they just seem to absorb what they hear. I definitely find learning a language harder than I thought it would be, I was originally under the naive idea that I could just move to Spain and I would just suddenly and spontaneously one day wake up and speak Spanish! In reality, I make lots of mistakes, and need to study loads (a lot more than I actually do!) 

Since I began teaching English in Barcelona I’ve taught a wide range of ages, my youngest being 7 year olds and my oldest being a group of elementary mums aged around fifty. Although very different these were actually two of my favorite classes, the seven year olds were exhausting but rewarding and my elementary adults were so lovely and it was great to see them progress. From my experiences I would say that it does seem that, although adults can gain a deeper understanding of a language, children generally appear to learn quicker than adults and seem to be able to emulate the accents they hear a lot more naturally. 

Yet the majority of research has shown that being older does not affect your ability to learn a language. In fact Scientific study shows that, 

-There is no decline in the ability to learn as people get older.
-Except for minor considerations such as hearing and vision loss, the age of the adult learner is not a major factor in language acquisition.
-The context in which adults learn is the major influence on their ability to acquire the new language.

So therefore, it is not that we loose the ability to learn but that we loose the structured learning environment we had as a child. My young learners used to come straight from school to the academy, study English and often then go off to another extra curricula activity afterward. Yet with such a tight schedule they still always had energy to learn. No wonder -studying is what they do every day, they are always in a learning environment and they have people there to make sure that they study.

Adults on the other hand are battling learning a language with an already hectic schedule, a full time job, a family and a social life and we are not in the routine of learning. It is solely down to ourselves to find the motivation, make ourselves study and go to classes. This might help explain why my adult students (and myself) are always so bad at doing our homework! 

So what can we do to try and equalize this disadvantage? I suppose we need to try and emulate the learning environments we had when we were children, make ourselves study a least a little everyday.

If you spend even an hour a day, every day on a language (10 minutes here, 15 minutes there) you can reach oral fluency in less than a year. -John Fotheringham

However, it’s important that you find the techniques that works for you, studying a language doesn’t mean you have to revert back to the days of boring grammar books and vocabulary lists. New technology has made it so much more convenient to learn a language. With the existence of podcasts and smart phones you can now fit in a little language on your lunch breaks, on your way to work, at the gym, whenever and wherever! There are some really great podcasts available in Spanish, English, French, Italian and many more languages, and don’t forget about us for accessible and fun vocabulary practice!

Just remember to find a way that you enjoy, because enjoying what you do is the easiest way to succeed, no matter how old, or young you are!