Am I Too Old to Learn a Language?
By Christina Cappy, PhD | 5-minute read
“Am I too old to learn a language?” This is a question that I have heard time and time again. Popular sayings such as “children’s brains are like sponges” are used as justifications that there is a certain time of life to learn another language, and once past that point learning a language is a lost cause. Older adults tell me that they are interested in learning new skills and travel, but they believe that acquiring a new language is not in the cards for them. So, I decided to take a deep dive into contemporary research on language learning, old age, and the brain to investigate this topic further. In this article, I will debunk the myth that language learning is only for children through a review of contemporary research, examine the benefits and challenges of language learning for adult learners, and share some perspectives from older language learners and teachers in our Central Oregon community.
Language Learning, Age, and the Brain
Brain Health with Language Acquisition
To begin, let’s review some research about language learning and the brain. An abundance of research has demonstrated that lifelong bilingualism benefits the brain in such a way that it may delay the onset of dementia (Antoniou and Wright 2017; Bubbico et al 2019). In a robust literature review on how language learning may promote healthy cognitive aging, Antoniou and Wright (2017) found that bilinguals show a clear advantage in nonlinguistic cognitive abilities, particularly executive functions. Bilinguals are more likely to perform better in memory and judgement studies than monolinguals, and their fMRI scans reveal greater brain efficiency.
Moreover, bilinguals are typically diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease 4-5 years later than monolinguals and show the onset of symptoms 4-5 years later as well. Antoniou and Wright (2017) explain that “[this] evidence supports the view that lifelong bilingualism may benefit the brain by making use of efficient or alternative neural networks in the event of age-related decline and that greater amounts of brain atrophy are required before the disease manifests, which may possibly delay the incidence of dementia” (Antoniou and Wright 2017, 3). In short, there is a direct correlation between speaking multiple languages and brain health as one ages.
Fortunately, more contemporary studies have investigated the relationship between language learning among older adults, cognitive functions, and the brain. Wong et al (2019) investigated the cognitive ability and changes for adults ages 60-85 who studied foreign languages, music, and games. In their randomized study, they found that intensive foreign language training “even initiated later in life, yields statistically reliable improvements in measures of cognitive function and working memory” (Wong 2019, 2420). Individuals who learned with Rosetta Stone for six months, while not able to attain fluency, performed better in cognitive activities.
Taking a closer look at the brain, Bubbico et al (2019) found that 14 Italians ages 59-79 who enrolled in a 16-week English course showed structural changes to their brains. When compared to the control group, the language learners’ brains “showed significant improvement in global cognition together with an increased functional connectivity in the right inferior frontal gyrus (rIFG), right superior frontal gyrus (rSFG) and left superior parietal lobule (lSPL)” (abstract). The authors go on to suggest that second language learning programs, even later in life, could be considered “a non-pharmacological treatment able to counteract cognitive aging along with the onset of dementia” (10). They suggest that language learning programs are so beneficial to older adults that they should be integrated as part of a healthy lifestyle program to improve brain plasticity.
Learning Possibilities Across Ages
OK, so learning another language has its benefits for cognitive functions and the brains of older adults. But is it possible to learn a language later in life? Is there a critical period in which one needs to learn a language? What is the best way to learn a language as an adult?
To answer these questions, let’s review research in language learning among people of different ages. Several researchers have examined something known as the critical period for learning a language. Previously, it was thought that children needed to learn a language by the age of 12 to attain native-like fluency in phonology and grammar. However, more contemporary research has pointed to how this period may be longer (Hartshorne et al 2018). Hartshorne et al (2018) did a wide-scale quantitative study among 669,498 participants (both native and non-native English speakers) and asked them to complete an online survey to assess grammar knowledge and vocabulary. They found that the critical period is closer to 17.4 years for individuals to achieve native-like fluency. This is significantly later than previously thought, demonstrating that even teenagers who learn a language can likely pass as a local with practice and training.
Most interesting, however, is what Hartshorne’s research shows when it comes to learning a language as an adult. These scholars opened their findings for anyone to peruse and this evidence demonstrates that while learning in teenage years makes a person more likely to pass as a native, many people who learn a language as an adult can attain high competency and even fluency in another language. In fact, on the grammar tests adults who started learning a language past the age of 20 often reached scores of over 80% accuracy (see Chacon 2018). This shows that learning another language isn’t just for the young ones.
Other scholars, like Lichtman (2016) have examined how adults and youth respond to explicit language instruction. This author questions the assumption that youth learn best through implicit instruction, including immersion environments where grammar is not explained, and adults learn best through explicit instruction. Based on a study with 40 elementary aged children and 40 adults, she found that explicit instruction affects adults and youth in the same way. If grammar is explained to children, they will have greater awareness of linguistic grammatical structures. However, many teachers often approach youth instruction implicitly when compared to adults. This study therefore shows that environment can shape differences in language learning for adults and youth, rather than age. Greater factors in language acquisition consist of length of exposure, time, and interest in study.
One way to further language learning for people of all ages is to learn as a family. This is where language learning initially takes place for native speakers, so why not second language learners as well? Corbley (2021) discusses how cooking, going shopping, gardening, and watching a movie together can be fantastic ways to reinforce language learning for people of all ages. Learning a language is fundamentally a social activity, so practicing with those closest to you can be a fantastic method to speaking a new language.
In conclusion, while people who start learning as children may come to learn phonology and grammar better, adults are fully able to learn a second language well into their retirement years. Research has shown that learning language later in life has benefits for the brain and memory. This has been demonstrated through a range of cognitive tests and fMRI results.
But what are people saying about what it is like to learn a second language later in life? What benefits and challenges are adult language learners experiencing?
What Are Older Language Learners Saying?
Benefits and Challenges of Learning a Language for Older Adults
Let’s turn now to published research—as well as the perspectives from our own Central Oregon community members—to hear what older adults are saying about their language learning experiences.
In an experimental study, Pikhart and Klimova (2020) compared levels of happiness among 105 older Czech language learners (55+ most in their 70s), 102 young adults (19-23) who were learning a language, and 102 older citizens (55+) who were not learning a language. They found that older citizens who enrolled in a language course experienced greater levels of happiness, satisfaction, and motivation with language learning than a control group of university-aged learners and the older citizens who were not learning a language. This trend occurred even independent of language learning outcomes. Put plainly, although the university students who were learning a language may have performed better on some test scores, the older group reported higher levels of satisfaction. In fact, 92% of older adults reported a stronger desire to travel and discover new countries after learning a language and 88% acknowledged the impact of learning another language on understanding different cultures. Over 80% felt that learning a language enhanced their cognitive skills, memory, and concentration. A similar number also appreciate the social role that foreign language learning manifested in them making new friends (Pikhart and Klimova 2020, 8). Older language students thoroughly enjoyed the benefits that language learning had to offer on their brains and their social experiences.
In Central Oregon, we asked many of our older language learners (60+) and teachers about their experiences with language learning as adults – both the benefits and the challenges they faced. Of the 17 responses we received, ten people said they appreciated learning a language because it was good for their brain and memory. Twelve people also talked about how language learning helps them connect with other people both in Central Oregon and while travelling. It helps them gain insight into another culture and way of life. Many adult language learners have advantages over younger language learners because they have more motivation and commitment to learning. Here are some of my favorite responses, pseudonyms included as this survey was anonymous:
[Learning a new language] helped with me developing some social contacts in a new town. I also have much more confidence when speaking with native Italian speakers (Melissa, 60-69).
[Learning a new language] has kept my brain from atrophying and there is nothing more satisfying than trying out your new language in a foreign country and having the natives understand you (Alex, 70-79).
[Language learning] helps when traveling, exercises my memory, and makes me feel like I can still learn new things (Samantha, 60-69).
Learning a second language as an adult (or senior) keeps my brain challenged (Kathy, 80-89).
These community members also didn’t hold back when expressing some of the challenges they have faced in language learning. More than anything they expressed difficulties in finding time (seven said this) to stay committed to learning and practicing a new language. Others also expressed confidence, memory, and specific grammar issues that they found challenging. Here are some things that they said about their biggest challenges:
Busy life, time to study and opportunity to practice and hear the language (Paul, 60-69).
Staying committed to the learning process when you feel you aren’t making much progress (Kathy, 80-89).
Building confidence when interacting with all modalities in a different language (Allison, 70-79).
My memory is not what it was. It takes discipline to form routine study habits. I am often impatient with myself (Alex, 70-79).
Our community members also shared their perspectives on what has helped them learn a new language. Here are some of their thoughts:
Interactions, hearing and speaking the language. Going to class helps because it is a “safe” space where I can practice and ask questions (Melissa, 60-69)
Mostly to try out your new language at whatever level in a safe, friendly environment where everyone wants you to succeed (Alex, 70-79)
I think just speaking and hearing it is helpful…learning from mistakes. I also feel that the ability to hear important points that are difficult to comprehend in mother tongue is very helpful, instead of “hoping” that you understood the explanation (given in the language you are trying to learn) of how to use/apply the grammar rule (Federica, 60-69).
Many people cited fear of making mistakes as a big challenge, but also a challenge that they sought to overcome. When we asked our older community members about anything they would like to say to older students considering learning another language, here is what they said:
It is never too late to begin and is great to keep your mind active. It is sometimes difficult not to be disheartened by slow progress… but each time you master a new level or skill it is very gratifying (Paul, 60-69).
Do It!! It will offer a broader look at a different culture and give immense satisfaction in achieving something new. Travel will be enhanced. New friends made in class (Karen, 70-79).
We are NEVER too old to learn… it may take longer, but we can do it (Summer, 60-69).
It is a real confidence boost and is one of the most satisfying things I have done. You can still accomplish things even as you grow older (Alex, 70-79).
I also asked some of our teachers about their perspectives. Janet Gesme, our German, Russian, and Spanish teacher, and adult learner of Hungarian and Korean, provided such a well-articulated response I couldn’t help reprinting it:
“The biggest challenge is to embrace imperfection: mistakes are key to language learning! Success has the greatest positive impact on learning, however, learning languages is like making a snowball. When you roll a speck of snow on the ground, it doesn’t pick up much. Roll an orange-sized snowball, and it grows a little faster. When you roll a beach ball sized snowball in the snow, it gets bigger super-fast! That is language learning. The start is always the hardest, but if you keep going, your knowledge grows faster and faster. Getting through the first year or two is the hardest part.”
What This Means for You
I cannot tell you what this means for you because it is likely that we have never met. But what I can say is that research has demonstrated that there are only upsides to learning a language as an older adult. Learning another language benefits the brain, improves memory and cognitive skills, and is a fun way to make new friends and learn about new cultures. It may be challenging at times, but you are never too old to learn a language.
Antoniou, Mark, and Sarah M. Wright. 2017. “Uncovering the Mechanisms Responsible for Why Language Learning May Promote Healthy Cognitive Aging.” Frontiers in Psychology 8:2217.
Bubbico, Giovanna, Piero Chiacchiaretta, Matteo Parenti, Marcin di Marco, Valentina Panara, Gianna Sepede, Antonio Ferretti, and Mauro Gianni Perrucci. 2019. “Effects of Second Language Learning on the Plastic Aging Brain: Functional Connectivity, Cognitive Decline, and Reorganization.” Frontiers in Neuroscience 13:423.
Corbley, Andy. 2021. “It’s a Myth That Adults Can’t Learn Languages as Easily as Kids – Benefits Multiply if Families Learn Together.” Good News Network. Accessed online September 8, 2022: https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/tips-to-learning-a-second-language-as-a-family/
Hartshorne, Joshua K., Joshua B. Tenenbaum, and Steven Pinker. 2018. “A Critical Period for Second Language Acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 Million English Speakers.” Cognition 177:263-277.
Lichtman, Karen. 2016. “Age and Learning Environment: Are Children Implicit Second Language Learners?” Journal of Child Language 43 (3):707-730.
Pikhart, Marcel, and Blanka Klimova. 2020. “Maintaining and Supporting Seniors’ Wellbeing through Foreign Language Learning: Psycholinguistics of Second Language Acquisition in Older Age.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17 (21):8038-8053.