Are you ever too old to learn a language?
At what age should you learn English? Am I too old to learn a language? Is it too late to reach an advanced level in English? Perhaps you are wondering how to learn English in retirement? Some even think it’s too late to learn English at 30!
These are questions often asked by blog readers and in today’s article we want to assure you that it’s never too late to learn a language !
At what age should you learn English?
The received idea that one can learn a language up to a native level only when one is a child probably comes from the hypothesis of the critical period for acquiring a language. According to this notion, the first years of life are the determining time during which an individual acquires his native language. Fortunately, there are few examples of “wild” children who did not learn a language during childhood , so the theory is still debatable. Moreover, in this case, it is a question of acquiring a first language and not a second foreign language!
According to linguist Tim Keeley, age is by no means among the most important factors when it comes to learning a foreign language. The following factors have a much greater influence on our learning:
- cultural and linguistic identity
- the emotions
- psychological and emotional factors
- knowledge of other languages
- experience in learning foreign languages
Learning English in retirement is therefore quite possible if you have the correct approach. We will talk in more detail in this article.
If you are interested in Dr Keeley’s research, you can find his articles on foreign language acquisition and learning on his website.
What can we learn from children?
While it’s never too late to learn a language, whether you’re a kid or want to learn English at 60, it’s true that little ones have certain advantages. Let’s look at what we can learn from them and how we can apply it in our own learning:
- Children have more free time . Lack of time is one of the biggest problems when trying to learn English as an adult. There is no secret: if you want to reach an advanced level in English, you have to invest time in it, a certain number of hours , and the magic number is 1,200 . It takes 1,200 hours of practice to reach level C2 in English . Since the children do not work and, especially the little ones, have no other responsibility than to play and try to communicate with their peers, they spend long periods practicing their native language.
Granted, it works, but they achieve this goal rather inefficiently. After all, their goal is not to master a language, they just want to play and communicate with others and thus, they learn the language. Their advantage is that they have a huge amount of time to learn, while yours is that you can optimize your time and effort through focused learning .
- Children are not ashamed or afraid of making mistakes . Adults tend to be much more self-conscious and avoid talking unless they are sure what they are saying is correct. On the other hand, the only objective of children is to communicate, perfection comes after. This should also be our goal when we want to learn English as an adult: to communicate effectively with English speakers even if it is not perfect, until we learn how to express ourselves correctly. It comes with practice and with experience: to master a language you have to start by looking for your words, hesitating, constructing incorrect sentences and speaking imperfectly.. Paradoxically, we have to make mistakes to progress. The more we make mistakes, the more we receive corrections and feedback, which allows us to correct ourselves. Think about it: if children were afraid of making mistakes, they would never talk! On the other hand, they do a lot , but they benefit from the feedback immediately.
You need to be more forgiving with yourself . If you’ve had bad school experiences with harsh teachers who don’t accept mistakes, then forget about their approach: we all make mistakes and that’s how we learn .
Children talk to themselves, their toys, their friends, their parents constantly. When they learn a new word, they repeat it dozens of times without getting bored, playing, singing , imitating the pronunciation of people around them . In short, children have fun repeating tons of things .
- Children are more curious , more open and more sociable . They try new things, activities, stories, movies, games, they meet other new kids all the time. The fact of always being exposed to the language, to different environments and registers of language , vocabulary, grammatical constructions, etc., helps them to master the language in all its forms. On the other hand, adults are more inclined to use the language in their usual activities and they rarely try new things, which naturally limits their development. To avoid this, you must remain open-minded, curious and sociable., and trying to make the most of all available resources .
- Children are more open to new sounds , both to hear them and to try to articulate them. As adults, we become blind (or rather, deaf!) to sounds that don’t exist in our native language. Our brain and ears try to match unfamiliar sounds to the closest equivalents in our native language, resulting in a foreign accent . Here is why many Hindi speakers tend to pronounce the TH as /s/ or why English speakers pronounce the Hindi R incorrectly. Children do not fall into this trap, because they have no other language that influences them.
To fix this, you need to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet for English (or IPA). It’s a better alternative to spelling, where each symbol always represents the same sound.
In other words, by consulting a phonetic transcription you will always know how to pronounce a word in English with certainty. In addition, the API allows you to work on phonetics visually, which is very useful for getting used to new sounds. After learning to identify sounds that do not exist in India, I advise you to learn about articulatory phonetics . She is interested in the articulation of sounds, the position of the mouth, tongue and lips, as well as other practical information on the production of different sounds.
According to Iverson, one can learn to pronounce English like the natives even as an adult:
The adult brain can be retrained to pick up foreign sounds more easily again. The we have with learning languages in later life difficulties are not biological and that, given the right stimulus, the brain can be retrained. Iverson (2005)
So, with the right training, it doesn’t matter how old you are when you learn English.
Here are some additional points that help children and that you can learn from:
Children train for free , while adults have to pay for conversation lessons, language trips , etc. Obviously, not all of us have the resources to immerse ourselves in the English language like kids do, but we can still take advantage of the power of the internet to do a ton of things for free.
Children are not influenced by the text , because they spend almost 7 years learning their native language before they start reading . As adults, we rely too heavily on the written word and since no alphabet (even the API ) can represent the pronunciation of words 100%, we end up having a foreign accent. So try to spend time listening to audio only, no text.
Children receive much more encouragement . As soon as they say their first words, they are encouraged, which is motivating and inspiring. We are much more patient with the children, we constantly correct them until they automate the correct turns. Unfortunately, this is not always the case for adults: nobody encourages us when we finally manage to order a meal in a restaurant in English and adults are rarely in the presence of patient native speakers who correct them all the time. Surround yourself with positive people who help, inspire and push you to keep going.
The lack of moms . Learning a language begins in the womb of the mother, when she talks to her future baby and then, the exaggerated way parents talk to their child helps them learn to pronounce sounds well. Unfortunately, it is not possible to reproduce these months or even years of motherese or parentais, but by spending enough time with the language, you can get closer to it.
Having unrealistic expectations and goals . Children are once again free from expectations, they learn as they go, whereas adults are largely influenced by their environment and received ideas about learning foreign languages. This causes them to set unrealistic goals that cannot be achieved and as a result, they feel discouraged. You have to understand and accept that learning a foreign language is a lot of work, time and effort.. Don’t believe people who claim to be multilingual in a matter of weeks or most viral videos on the internet of people who speak dozens of languages. Memorizing a few sentences in 20 languages with a pretty decent accent isn’t as impressive as mastering one or two languages and being able to use them in any context, almost like a native. There are concrete steps to follow to become multilingual, whether you are a child or want to learn English at 50, among others:
- learn the 5000 most used words of English,
- reach 1200 hours of practice,
- and master the 39 sounds of English (recognize them orally and be able to reproduce them).
Knowing what to expect and having a concrete and realistic plan is the key to success.
At what age to learn English:
adapt your method according to your needs and tastes!
Benefits of learning English as an adult
Despite these challenges, there are also some advantages of learning English as an adult and once you are aware of them, you can turn them to your advantage:
Focus : As independent learners, we are free to choose our resources and adapt them according to our needs and tastes. By using interesting and stimulating content, we will be more focused than children or high school students.
Determination : We have a goal and we are determined to achieve it. Set SMART goals :
- S pecific: Is your objective concrete? “Becoming multilingual in English” is a good goal, but the problem is that it is not concrete: what does it mean to be multilingual in reality? Set yourself more concrete goals, for example learn to introduce yourself fluently in English or order in a restaurant in English without hesitation.
- M easurable: Is your goal measurable? Will you be able to realize that you have reached it?
- Achivable : Is your goal achievable? If you want to become multilingual in a year, can you really invest 1000 hours in your learning?
- R ealistic: Is your goal realistic? Don’t think you can learn English in a few weeks!
- T imely: Do you have enough time to achieve your goal?
Technology: While kids can play with their parents’ tablets, they can’t put as much use to them as adults. They can better exploit the resources and content found on the Web to make more progress, faster and with more pleasure.
Intelligent and targeted learning: As we have already said, the way children learn their native language, although it works, is not optimal. There are concrete aspects of language that one must master to reach a high level ( C1 / C2 ) and if you know them well, you can focus your efforts and your time on them. (the most common words, grammar structures, sounds, stress, sentence stress, hours of practice, etc.).
Conscious learning : Adults can make better use of their mistakes. Some don’t like it when we correct them, but it helps us to progress. When we take our mistakes into account, we improve faster than a child who has to be corrected dozens or even hundreds of times before he understands his mistake.
Adults acquire grammar better and faster . They have the ability to better notice and imitate patterns and they can generalize rules. Children must hear a grammatical construction thousands of times before acquiring it.
- The experience : Children have two main tasks: to learn about the world around them and also to learn to describe what they see, hear and feel. Adults have the advantage of already knowing the world, they just have to learn new ways to describe it.
How to learn English as an adult?
What is the best way to learn English for adults? You need intelligent and targeted learning , to optimize your time and energy and learn English gradually and effectively. To know :
- Vocabulary , you need to learn the 5000 most used words in the English language, which make up 96% of the spoken language, learning the most common and useful ones first.
- Pronunciation , you need interactive phonetics instruction, preferably audio-visual instruction. To correct mistakes that you have potentially learned and to fill in your gaps in pronunciation, you have to hear and see the correct pronunciation of words constantly to correct its pronunciation.
- Content should be lively and interesting. Our brains retain new information much better if we have an emotional connection. For this, we need engaging and stimulating resources.
- To optimize your efforts, use a system of spaced repetitions.
Children spend about 10,000 hours learning their native language, which is doable in 1,000 hours for adults, provided they use the right practice .
Are you ever too old to learn English?
The conclusion is that no, there is no ideal age to learn a language . What is true is that our advantages and challenges differ from those of children, and what is certain is that we cannot learn like them. To learn English as an adult, you will need to find a method or English course for adults that will help you optimize your efforts and the time invested in learning.
Testimonials: At what age did they learn English?
If you are still not convinced that it is possible to learn a language in retirement, I invite you to watch the videos of Steve Kaufmann, one of the most brilliant polyglots who has learned 20 languages and continues to develop his skills. linguistics:
And if you don’t think you can learn English with a good accent as an adult (retired or not), read the testimonial of a Click & Speak user :
Repeating as much as I want and being able to listen to each sound individually has allowed me to improve my accent very markedly. Study with everyday phrases the spoken language with the contracted forms.” – Evelyne
Learning English in retirement is one of the best hobbies you can have, since retired people tend to have more free time (not working anymore), be more focused, and determined . Not to mention that learning English will help keep your brain young .
And you? At what age did you learn English? Or, at what age are you going to get back into it? Tell us in the comments and find a community of people passionate about learning English!
Learn English in retirement
English speakers say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks to say that you can’t teach some people new things, but is that really the case ? At what age should you learn English? To the one you have now!