As the idiom goes, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” and according to many people, never is that truer than when it comes to language acquisition.
A study published this past spring in Cognition, a journal of cognitive science, identified a “critical window” for learning a language: a time when the brain is best poised to pick up new grammar rules. According to the study, the best time to learn is before the age of 10, although young people as old as 17 or 18 display an advanced ability to pick up new the rules of a new language, far later in life than once assumed. That natural knack for language acquisition trails off after the late teens.
Numerous news sources ran with the story, some giving the impression that the ability to achieve fluency in a non-native language has a cut-off date.
Bad (and incredibly discouraging) news for late-in-life language learners. But is that really the case? And is native-level fluency even the primary goal that people should go into language learning with?
Not so, according to many sources, including the study itself.
While the “critical window” does signify the period in a person’s life when they’re likely to achieve the proficiency of a native speaker—that is, understanding the complicated intricacies of grammar rules in a language, the kind of rules that come naturally to you when speaking in your first language—fluency, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the “ability to speak or write a foreign language easily and accurately,” is possible at any age.
Learning a language, of course, involves less effort as a child or teen—that’s true of just about anything—but mastery and even fluency are possible at any age. Enter any evening language class—such as those offered at CLC—and you’ll find that it’s full of adults of all ages, either brushing up on old language skills or trying out a new language for the first time. Polish author Joseph Conrad—who some argue was one of the best wordsmiths of the English language in the 20th century—didn’t start learning English until he was 21.
Even if you’ve set your sights a little lower than Mr. Conrad, the benefits of language acquisition are monumental. The skills involved in learning a language can help keep dementia at bay and help you understand your own native language better. Learning a language can connect you to your roots or to loved ones new or old, and the often social nature of language classes make them ideal for those looking to expand their social network. These advantages make learning a language a great idea for anyone, but perhaps especially retirees, who have time to devote to studying and benefit from the social nature of language acquisition.
So what are you waiting for? You may not be en route to publishing the next great novel of this century in your chosen language, but whether you’re 18 years old or 88, fluency could very well be on the horizon for you.
– By Holly Tousignant