Learning a Language at a Later Age

The benefits of bilingualism when you’re older

It’s not as difficult as you think…

Before concentrating on the advantages of becoming bilingual when older, it’s vital to realize that it is an absolutely attainable goal. There is much material online and elsewhere that suggests a second language is more easily accrued at an early age. Certainly, there is evidence, such as that from the Multilingual Children’s Association, to back this up. However, it is an unfortunate misconception of many older people that this inhibits them from learning altogether. In an article on Pickthebrain.com, Steve Kaufmann points out, “Recent brain research has demonstrated that our brains remain plastic well into old age.” Having in-depth knowledge of English grammar too (as was often taught in great detail at schools in the past) serves as an indispensable base for understanding the structure of a foreign language. Already, the advantages are stacking up.

A further benefit that mature students have over their younger counterparts is the amount of time they have to focus on studies. Particularly when any children have left home, and retirement age is approaching, many of the previous shackles of everyday living are cast aside. Instead of having to cram in one evening course per week, it may now be possible to enroll in longer courses, and to travel abroad to practice. Moving overseas may even become an option.

One final thing to remember: older language learners are not alone. With the persistent rise in mature Internet users (the European Travel Commission states that in the US, 60% of seniors are now online) a growing number of older people are accessing language learning facilities on the web, and opening their eyes to what the world still has to offer.


What you will get out of it

Learners of every age set out to gain knowledge of a second language for various reasons; it’s common to discover benefits of becoming bilingual that you hadn’t even considered along the way. Take Samuel Beckett who, at the age of 40, began writing his first drafts in French instead of English. One unexpected result of this was inspiration for many of his best-known works including “Waiting for Godot.” An extreme case study this may seem, but it goes to show that language learning at any age can unlock new doors. Now let’s take a closer look at the social and scientific benefits.

Social benefits


Many mature people decide to acquire a second language to add a new social aspect to their lives. Signing up for a course in the locality or joining an online community is a great way to meet new people and make friends. Sharing the same interest in a language and culture is an ideal starting point for conversation, plus a consistent demand for review prompts plenty of excuses for extra-curricular meet-ups. Here arises another important point; if a learner really wants to become bilingual(as opposed to, say, a 14-year-old who might have no genuine interest in attending Spanish class), the probability of success is significantly higher. As Professor Catherine Snow explains in an interview on the Harvard Graduation School of Education website, “Studies of highly successful adult second-language learners suggest that they have a high motivation to learn the target language, and a period, typically early in the acquisition process, of full immersion in the target language, with minimal recourse to the first language.”

For those looking to take bolder steps, enrolling on an immersion program offers the opportunity to embrace a language at its very roots. Unfortunately, the concept of an immersion program can be off-putting to the older learner, as these are often seen as synonymous with younger students. Here’s another notion that should be dispelled; it is never too late to become immersed in another culture, plus a number of companies now offer vacation language courses specifically tailored to more mature clients.

Older learners may want to immerse themselves in another culture altogether, that is, to emigrate. This can cause a very real need to learn another language, especially if the country is not noted for its preponderance of English speakers. Naturally, on a social level, it is more satisfactory, not to mention polite, to address new neighbors and acquaintances in their native language. But the advantages stretch further than this. If, for example, you are hiring workers for renovation on your new apartment, it will pay dividends to be able to confidently express your wants and concerns, not to mention form a stronger bond of trust between both parties.


Cognitive benefits

With age comes a growing concern for the health of one’s mind; the Alzheimer’s Association states that 5.4 million Americans are living with the disease, and as of yet there is no treatment for it. But learning a second language might just be one method of prevention. A 2012 article in the UK’s “Telegraph” suggests that studying a second language “rewires” the brain, and could help delay the onset of dementia for years. In the piece, Dr. Ellen Bialystok of York University in Toronto, Canada, found after research of hospital records that, “Specifically, monolingual patients were diagnosed on average at age 75.4 years and bilinguals at age 78.6 years.” The article goes on to claim that while lifelong bilingualism seems to cause the strongest protective effect, any attempt at learning a second language is likely to prove beneficial. Certainly, frequent learning and review of a second language calls upon the brain to react faster, and this can only be an asset.

All in all, learning a second language at an older age can be like opening a door to another world; one in which both the social and cognitive are refreshed and invigorated. Those who cast aside doubt and embrace the benefits are guaranteed to prosper, often much sooner than they might expect.