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Learning a New Language at 50+

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

There I was—69 years old and going off on the adventure of a lifetime (my lifetime, anyway): starting over in a new country—Mexico—where they spoke a language in which I’d never had one day of instruction. People warned me, “At your age, it won’t be easy.” Others assured me that Spanish was a cinch (it turned out those people had never tried to speak it). My cousin, a university Spanish teacher, had more daunting words: “We tell our students they need to spend four hours studying for every hour of class time.”

My husband had recently died. As I started to recover from the loss, I realized I couldn’t afford New York City anymore—not the way I wanted to live—and I didn’t relish moving to a small town, where I’d just be able to scrape by on Social Security and whatever other small income I had. It suddenly seemed as if the worst thing would be for my tombstone to say, “She only lived in one country.”

As a country for someone in my position, Mexico seemed to have everything: It was close enough for my family to visit and for me to come back when I wanted to. I could easily return for health care—important, since Medicare can’t be used in foreign countries. It was south of the border, so no more cold winters. I’d confirmed on visits over the years that it was a big, beautiful country filled with friendly people. And, crucial to me, I’d be in the enviable position of living on the dollar in a peso economy.

I chose to settle in a small mountain city called San Miguel de Allende, where I’d gone on my first honeymoon, 40 years before. My then-husband hadn’t had a day of Spanish classes, but he seemed to manage beautifully with the locals (I forgot that his facility with languages had nothing to do with whether I had any—anyway, I hadn’t been married to him for the last 20 years). Besides the perfect climate and the beauty of the place, I learned that these days, San Miguel had a sizable gringo community, so maybe I wouldn’t have to rattle off the español with total fluency immediately.

How the Brain Benefits

I had never been one of those people who took language lessons “just for fun.” Up front, let me tell you: You should be one of those people. It makes life easier and more expansive, and it could also keep your brain fit. As a psychologist friend of mine said after attending a neuroscience seminar, “Learning a new language is like sending your brain to the gym.”

Hard as it is to believe on those days when we forget our best friend’s name, our brain is always developing, and if we set it some hard tasks, we’ll be rewarded. A second language actually develops new neural pathways in the brain, makes new connections, adds flexibility; and of course, such a project has a similarly enriching effect on our world.

More good news: Many experts now believe learning a second language is no harder when you’re getting on in years than when you’re a child. “Children sometimes seem to learn effortlessly, but that’s because they’re working at it full time,” says Barry Gordon, MD, PhD, therapeutic cognitive neuroscience professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. However, he adds, “People past childhood do find it hard to get the exact sounds right.” I assure you he knows what he’s talking about. I’ve spoken perfect Spanish sentences, slowly and carefully, and been met by uncomprehending stares.

Which Method’s Best?

Rita Wohlfarth, 65, of New York City, began teaching herself Spanish a few years ago, mainly because her brother was doing it. “It was a competitive thing,” she admits. Her brother was using the Pimsleur foreign language tapes, so she did, too. She liked the method a lot even though no text was provided. “They repeat and repeat and you listen over and over and over; I also looked up the grammar in my son’s old high school textbooks.” Then she had the good fortune to stumble upon the Destinos video series—a soap opera in Spanish to teach language through dramaturgy. (The Annenberg Foundation presents it free.)

Wohlfarth, like so many people, swears by one low-tech method: index cards. And not just for vocabulary. “I’d put expressions on them and prop them up on the sink when I was brushing my teeth or on the kitchen counter when I was chopping onions.” So, far from using tapes exclusively, Wohlfarth invented her own immersion program.

“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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