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Learning a New Language at 50+

Who says learning a foreign tongue is best left to the young?

“The more sensory modalities” you use to learn, the better, according to Richard Restak, MD, clinical professor of neurology at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, DC, and author of "Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain’s Potential." “That’s how you learn, rather than listening passively to tapes. Just reading a book is the worst,” he says. For many people (including me), adding at least a smidgen of one-on-one learning to the mix—a tutor concentrating on you alone for an hour or so at a time—can make a crucial difference.

An architect friend needed to learn Mandarin because his firm was developing two major building projects in China. It took a year, but with tapes, a book, and a weekly tutor, he made enough progress to conduct business in Beijing. The challenge for him, as for most grown-ups, is feeling comfortable speaking a language badly. “I admire people who can rattle off what they need to say regardless of how it sounds,” he says. “It took me a while to get over the idea that the Chinese thought I was stupid to speak that way, to think, I don’t care, they just have to live with it.”

Advantages of Older Learners

No less an education authority than Catherine Snow, PhD, Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, stated in an interview, “The evidence clearly demonstrates that there is no critical period for second-language learning, no biologically determined constraint on language-learning capacity that emerges at a particular age, nor any maturational process which requires that older language learners function differently than younger language learners.” In fact, Snow says, “Older learners have advantages. They already know one language (and sometimes more than one) quite well and have practiced with the linguistic capacities that speed language acquisition. They are typically better at intentional learning: They have study strategies, mnemonic devices, literacy skills, and other resources.”

For me, I must admit, some of the neuroscience and cutting-edge education knowledge rings a little hollow. Despite my immersion program, I still have trouble deciding whether to say mucho gusto (nice to meet you) or me gusto mucho (I like it very much) on a particular occasion. I still want to say I’m embarazada when something makes me blush, although that means “pregnant,” which I couldn’t possibly be. Still, it’s nice to be reassured by the experts that it’s not my aging neural pathways that are holding me back. And it’s exhilarating when I get up every morning, go out in the world, and have actual conversations, sometimes including laughter (and not just at me), in a language I never spoke a word of until a year ago.

Carol Wheeler has written for such publications as Oprah at Home, Redbook, and the New York Times.

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