Am I Too Old to Learn a New Language?
Before you read this, let me just say categorically: “NO! It is not too hard to learn a new language at any age!”
Ok, now that’s off my chest… if you still have doubts, read on.
Where does this idea come from? Why are we conditioned to think of aging as a downfall on the journey of life?
Most “elderly” people I know (I won’t say who I’m thinking of because they may not be too pleased with that word!) are sharp as a whistle, and often seem much sharper than the 20-somethings who are apparently in prime condition.
Even my Grandmother, who made it to 84 years old, was always on the ball and had a better memory than me. On her deathbed many years ago, she told me that in her mind she still felt like a teenage girl. And let’s not forget to mention my Grandad who could memorise what cards everyone had when we played Gin Rummy!
Perhaps that sentiment applies to other people too. Being old is rarely a label we give to ourselves (unless it’s in jest), it is a label thrust upon us by others who are judging our appearance.
It wasn’t that long ago that the elders of society were venerated for their wisdom, but now it seems almighty Google is the elder with all the answers.
If entire societies were smart enough to respect and revere the knowledge of those who had lived the longest, maybe it’s time we did that too. Maybe as we age, we can give our own mind the respect and veneration it deserves.
Let’s look at a few myths some people believe about brain change:
Myth #1: old brains can’t grow new neurons
This has been dispelled by scientists! They have shown in multiple brain scan experiments that the very act of learning something new creates brain cells.
Myth #2: you can’t change the way you were born
This belief comes from people with what psychologists call a ‘fixed’ mindset, that we are born with talent and abilities which cannot be learned. The alternative, more positive, approach (which is recommended by mind experts… child psychologists in particular) is called a ‘growth’ mindset. We are coming to realise that what you learn and how you learn are the most important factors in personal development… and they can in many cases override any genetic weaknesses.
Myth #3: it’s natural to have a poor memory when you get older
Young people forget things just as often as everyone else, it just seems like less because they have fewer things to remember. As you get older, the amount of ‘mind-space’ increases, e.g. an 80 year old has 4 times as much to remember as a 20 year old! Things like dementia are actually a result of poor health rather than a normal effect of aging, but many people don’t realise that.
So how do we make sure the myths don’t become who we are?
The best way to keep your brain functioning smoother than a Michael Jackson moonwalk is to use it regularly.
That means read a lot, both fiction and non-fiction (I personally recommend reading non-fiction earlier in the day, and fiction later… to help switch off your chattering monkey mind). The more you read, the more you learn and the more you learn, the more you can learn.
With day to day activities, try using your brain before the easy solutions… such as working out maths before you use a calculator… remember shopping items before looking at your list… try and remember someone’s name before asking them again.
With language it's exactly the same. That's why our coaches wait a couple of seconds before they help you finding the word you are looking for. Because most of the times you find it yourself with a little patience, you must use what you know and let the rest come naturally. If you forget a word try and remember words associated to it to see if that triggers the work you want. If you forget a phrase, say it in English and add any words you do know e.g. “where do you arbeit (work)?“. It is better to stretch your mind and make a mistake than to give up.
If you keep using your mind, it’ll always be ready to learn something new for you. Whether that’s learning a new language or a new instrument, you can do it at 8 or 80.