Are older people still able to learn a foreign language?

22 March 2017
door Regina Coeli

We are often asked if it is more difficult for older people to learn a language than for children. There’s a very short answer to that question: no!

The skill of ‘association’ makes it easier to learn a language

The way in which an adult learns a new language is actually much faster than the natural way in which a child picks up its mother tongue. This is due to the fact that an adult draws on knowledge and experience and is therefore able to make associations. For example: if you know what income tax is, you only focus on learning the equivalent word(s) in the foreign language without having to think about the definition. The learning process is therefore different and faster than language development in children.

To be open for an identity shift

Generally speaking, children who learn a second language at a young age have much better pronunciation than older people when they learn a language. This is not really a problem as far as communication is concerned. However, it is more difficult for adults to make the identity shift necessary for speaking a new language comfortably. Not all adults are willing to make the shift and that of course slows down the learning process.

Factors that determine how quickly you can learn another language

Age is not the only factor that determines how easily or quickly the learning process goes. Here are some other factors to bear in mind:

  • Your skills in a foreign language will never be better than the skills you have in your own mother tongue;
  • Motivation plays a major role in whether or not you are successful in learning another language;
  • Someone who is physically fit and active has a greater capacity for learning and remembering than someone with a sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle (inactive, wrong food choices, stress); and
  • An older person who has not continued to learn after leaving school (languages, other courses, a new skill, etc) will find it more difficult to learn a new language than an older person who has kept on learning throughout his professional life and afterwards.

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