Learning a Language – Is There an Age Barrier

For many of us who are getting a little older, we tend to imagine that learning a new language is something best left to the young.   There is some scientific evidence that does suggest learning new things as you get older is more difficult, it certainly isn’t impossible.  It is also known that there are significant benefits to even making the attempt.

As we get older our brains do lose some of it’s neuroplasticity – that is the phenomenon which allows the brain to adapt and change to new experiences.  But that is not suggesting that an older brain is not capable of learning new, just that it might take a little more effort, at least initially.


There are other disadvantages in picking up the sounds and pronunciation of a language which are typically picked up much more easily by children.  But it’s not all bad news, older adults are likely to have a larger vocabulary which allows them to learn new words in other languages more easily.  Vocabulary extension is more simple when you already have a large vocabulary as the new words can be mapped onto existing knowledge.

But there are some benefits to actually trying to learn a new language however difficult it might appear.  For a start there is more and more evidence that learning anything and languages in particular is good for the health of your brain. There is a natural age related decline in mental functions especially in areas like attention and memory, in fact in some people the acceleration causes the development of various forms of dementia – such as Alzheimer’s disease.  Some recent studies have suggested that learning a new language can slow the age related decline and even delay the onset of dementia.

Learning and speaking a foreign language seems to improve what is called our executive function.  These are a set of mental processes which enable us to vary our actions and thoughts depending on the situation and how it changes.  It may be that any sort of learning in later life has these benefits but these studies does seem to show that there are particular benefits to language learning.  It may be that simply the fact that it is harder in later life gives greater benefits – a bit like exercise and the ‘no pain, no gain’ concept.

It’s certainly a lot easier to gain access to language learning resources particularly online.  There are many free web sites with lots of good information on a whole host of languages.  You can also practice by watching shows or films in different languages, find a tool that allows you to change IP address and you can access any media or TV station in the world without restriction.

So if you’re feeling a little daunted by  the thought of learning a new language in later years, then perhaps it’s time to focus on the benefits as well.  I am reminded of my time teaching night classes in technology to older people, which initially was something of a challenge.  However although the older people often took longer to grasp the concepts, they often overtook the younger people in the long run.  There was definitely a different approach to learning between age groups, but both certainly had their merits.

Christopher Smart