Learning a foreign language and aging

By | March 27, 2014

You probably have heard that humans have a certain ‘window’ of time, where once we get past a certain age it’s much more difficult to learn a second, or third language. While this is still an area of science where there is many unknowns (like how long this window is), you’ve probably noticed that people who learn a foreign language later in life tend to have a thicker accent and stumble more grammatically, at least on average. If you tried learning a foreign language for the first time in your 20s or later, you may have noticed that you don’t pick things up as fast, and the older you get the more challenging things become.

I can think of many reasons for this to be the case, for example:

  • Physiological differences in the brain which contribute to slower response time and worse memory.
  • A lack of a really ‘necessity’ to learn a language. When we are young we are forced to learn our native language to communicate with our parents, friends, and teachers.
  • We have a lot more on the mind than when we were young – job, money, maybe a wife/husband and kids.
  • Our free time is drastically reduced so the time to dedicate to studying is lessened as well.

The good news is that many of these can be overcome to a certain degree, with proper mindset and studying techniques. Even the physiological differences are not black or white such that our brain stops learning exactly at a specific age. Rather there is a gradual decline as we get older.

I was thinking about aging and foreign language acquisition and had an epiphany, or least what I would call as a pretty important thought that I wanted to write down. Now that I’ve set up the background I can delve into the main part of this post.

It’s funny that we can through our daily lives, sometimes for decades, and really not run into anything that is as intellectually challenging as learning a foreign language. (Of course, there are those of us that are really into our profession, or a certain hobby, and put our brains through the wringer on a daily basis). Depending on our chosen major and university, college may be hard, and maybe even the first few years of a job, but typically we get into a grove where things become easier. This speaks of two things: one, that we’ve successfully grown accustomed to nearly all common activities in our daily life, and two, that we aren’t really challenging ourselves to anything as difficult and complex as a foreign language.

The key insight that I had was that the difficulty of foreign language learning at a later age doesn’t so much represent the fact that languages are tough, but rather how much we have mentally declined, and are a good way to measure and train our thinking, reasoning, and memory capacities in general. So I could just quit learning foreign languages and stick to something ‘easy’, but then I would be depriving my brain of needed stimulus to stay in tip-top shape. As they say, “use it or loose it”, and if you apply that principle here you end up with foreign language being a critical part of your intellectual diet, which  is a way of saying it will keep your mind young.

So I’ve decided to not give up the fight against foreign languages (Japanese at present, and maybe others in the future), and use language study as a way to help stave off the gradual mental decline that naturally(?) occurs as we age.  I hope you’ll continue this journey with me, whether it’s Japanese or some other language your into.



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2 thoughts on “Learning a foreign language and aging

  1. chanteru

    I can’t really comment on the impact of aging on language acquisition (I’m 18 haha) but at the end of the day, I don’t really feel like there are any significant barriers to language learning (such as age etc). If you really want to learn/do something, you’ll find a way to do it! This is pretty much my learning motto, and I plan to carry it with me when I progress further into adulthood ^^

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that our mental state and philosophies about learning are the most important factor in making quick and effective progress. Even if there are biological barriers, they are not absolute and can be overcome by enough willpower and right methodology.


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