While the general consensus is that the younger learner has a stronger ability to learn a new language, there is little evidence to suggest that adult learners are slower to absorb new information.
Yes, our ability to hear and understand a second language often becomes more difficult with age, but the adult brain can be retrained to pick up foreign sounds more easily again. This finding, reported by Dr Paul Iverson of the UCL Centre for Human Communication builds on an important new theory that the difficulties we have with learning languages in later life are not biological and that, given the right stimulus, the brain can be retrained.
Learning new languages later in life can open up a wealth of new opportunities and experiences. Here are three reasons to take up learning a new language later in life:
Train your brain
The brains of bilingual people operate differently than monolinguals, and these differences offer several mental benefits.
Language learning builds up your “cognitive reserve”, which makes you more resistant to brain damage. This perhaps explains why language skills are considered to help stave off alzheimers and dementia. According to leading translation agency Global Voices, “Engaging the mind in a second language generates more activity in certain regions of the brain… This ultimately slows down cognitive aging and contributes to fighting against neuropathological damage in the brain.”
So what happens to the brain of an adult who learns languages? In 2012 a group of adult students learning Chinese were tested over a nine-month period during which they showed “improved white-matter integrity”. White matter is what connects neural cells, and when neural cells are better connected, it becomes easier to accomplish cognitive tasks.
More remarkably, scientists found a group of military interpreters actually developed a larger hippocampus (the part of your brain which controls emotion and memory) after just three months of intense language learning.
Get more from travel
A priority for many retirees is getting the most out of global travel. While it’s possible to experience an amount of local culture by sticking to popular tourist resorts and hotels where you’re likely to find someone who speaks English, if you want to venture beyond such places, knowing the local language is very useful.
According to a survey by Travel Supermarket, 59% of British holidaymakers try to use the local language while travelling abroad. But we’re not just struggling to remember our school level French; more and more British travellers actively study the local language.
A basic ability in a foreign language will help you to ‘get by’, i.e. to order food and drink, find your way around, buy train tickets, etc., but if you have a more advanced knowledge of the language, you can have real conversations with the people you meet, which will add a new dimension to your holiday. Its an opportunity to make new friends, make useful business contacts, or even find your soulmate in an exotic paradise!
Get in touch with your roots
Language learners who study a language with the aim of better understanding a culture, history and society are integratively motivated.
Considering many of us here in the UK have relatives and ancestors who speak a different mother tongue, it seems a shame to lose that cultural heritage. That’s what Donald Williams sought to rectify when he took up study of Welsh aged 70. It offered him a tangible way to reconnect with his roots.
What’s more, language learning is a hugely sociable activity—language by its very nature connects people. Whether you’re looking to reconnect with the past or forge new connections, language learning can help you avoid isolation and boost self-esteem.