I’ve heard people enrolled in language classes complain that they are never going to succeed because they are “too old to learn a second language.” It’s a good excuse, but no one is really too old to learn another language.
While children and teens are generally accepted as the better language learners in a natural environment; adults are certainly able to learn a second language to a high degree of proficiency as well. I have a friend who learned Italian as an adult. Italians think she’s a native speaker, just from a different city.
Perhaps what makes adults feel they are too old to learn a language is the difference in the effort involved for them vs. the effort for children. Language acquisition for children seems effortless in a natural environment; whereas the adult is very conscious of his/her learning and is highly affected by his/her attitudes and motivation, anxiety levels, and willingness to communicate. These are the true impediments for an adult learner to overcome: These are the true impediments for an adult learner to overcome: fear, anxiety, motivation and attitude.
The effect of age on langugage learning is a hotly debated linguistic topic (the Critical Period Hypothesis, Optimal Age Theory, Maturation Theory). These theories explore whether or not the ability to learn a second language diminishes after puberty. Results are mixed and provide ongoing debate in linguistic circles. There does seem to be, however, a distinct advantage for children learners in terms of achieving native-like pronunciation. Adults have also been able to achieve native-like pronunciation, just not as consistently as a group. There are other aspects of language learning, such as overt language instruction, where adults and teens excel over children, particularly in the initial stages.
Another consideration for adult learners is personality. Linguistic studies on which personality traits correspond to good language learning seem to indicate that risk-takers and those with a high tolerance for ambiguity are better at learning a new language. This doesn’t mean you can’t be a good language learner if you are a careful person and need to understand everything. It just means that learning a new language is easier for those who are comfortable with guesswork, split second decisions, looking silly and making mistakes (all important aspects of learning another language).
To those who use age as a reason not to learn a language, it should be noted that as we age, learning a second language, even in a classroom setting, can be extremely beneficial. It’s a great way to keep the mind active. A classroom setting for language learning does require memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules, tasks that involve short-term memory. This may not be comfortable for adults in their senior years who experience short-term memory loss. Nonetheless, senios who did choose to take a second language reported that the felt studying a language improved their enjoyment of life and their self confidence.
So don’t give up on language learning if you are 30+. For adults, learning a language is indeed about the A word: but it is more likely that the word is “Attitude,” rather than “Age.”