How to learn a new language in retirement?

Learning a new language at an older age: How to get started

"You can't teach an old dog new tricks," say the old-school people who, strangely enough, still haven't realized that this proverb is a load of crap. In fact, you can learn new tricks no matter how old you are - 19 or 90 - and it's the same with language!

What's more, learning a foreign language as you age opens up new worlds, improves social relationships, gives you an exciting sense of purpose, and can even prevent cognitive decline. But just because it's possible and beneficial doesn't mean it's easy. Why does this happen? Why do children master languages in a few years, while you've burrowed headfirst into Greek for the past decade?

Why it gets harder to learn a language as you get older?

Let's start by saying that this isn't just a myth. Learning foreign languages does get harder as you get older, and the older you get, the harder it gets. In one of the largest linguistic studies - a viral online survey with two-thirds of a million respondents - researchers from three Boston universities showed that the ability to learn a new language is strongest, at least grammatically, before the age of 18. After that sweet age, there is a precipitous decline.

Why does this happen? Because as adults, our ability to concentrate and comprehend texts is much more difficult. So why does your 14-year-old niece speak Spanish so much better than you do?

Social change

The most obvious reason why it's harder to learn a language as you get older is that at 18, people tend to graduate from high school or go to college where they are too busy studying difficult subjects and other electives to devote themselves to language learning or they go to work where their days are full of commitments.

When you were in school, you probably had the time, opportunity and ideal conditions to learn a second language. However, in adulthood, you had exams that could change your career, a job to apply for, bills to pay, a house to maintain, and maybe even a family to take care of.

Native language interference

Another hypothesis for a sudden decline in language learning ability is that the rules you've learned for your native language are different from those needed for another language, and this can cause you to become very confused.

Changes in the brain

Finally, there is the belief that changes in the brain that occur in the late teens and early 20s can somehow make language learning more difficult. While the exact mechanism of this phenomenon in young people is unknown, we do know that the brain becomes less "plastic" as we age, making learning and, importantly, memorization more difficult.

Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to form and switch new synoptic connections, mainly as a result of learning or injury. Let me explain. Every time you learn something new, your brain forms new neurons and neural pathways, strengthening (or weakening) existing ones. This process continues throughout your life, but is thought to diminish as you age.

Although changes in society, native language interference, and changes in the brain can make second language acquisition more difficult, it is still 100% possible. It just takes hard work.

And luckily, there are incredible benefits available to you today. Language apps and many free online resources can help people of all ages learn the language of their choice - especially when they reach retirement age and have more time and freedom to learn.

Is it possible to learn a new language at 50?

Benefits of learning a new language in old age

Learning a new language improves brain health, learning increases brain plasticity, which maintains and even improves cognitive health as we age.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh studied 648 patients with Alzheimer's disease and found that monolingual patients developed dementia earlier than those who spoke two or more languages. Study leader Thomas Buck says that learning a foreign language in old age helps "train" the brain, making it more efficient and flexible, which has an impact on improving concentration and memory.

How it works. Switching from one language to another activates areas of the brain responsible for executive functions. This, in turn, reduces cognitive ability and can delay the onset of dementia.

Games such as Scrabble, crosswords, puzzles, strategy card games and Sudoku have similar benefits. But if you can learn a whole new skill, why not dedicate your time to learning a language?

Social Relationships

Language is an important tool for communication between people, and learning a new language opens up many opportunities to socialize with others!

Being able to speak a foreign language and practicing daily with other native speakers - fellow students, your teacher, family or community members (if you live in another country) - has a big impact on your ability to feel connected and engaged. And that will have a big impact on your future.

Mental health and happiness for seniors! Learning a new language in older age:

  • Increases social interaction;
  • Gives great skills for traveling;
  • Opens up new worlds through culture, art and cuisine;
  • Gives meaning to everyday life.

Get motivated

The best way to learn a language quickly is to get motivated. Most people "like the idea" of learning a language, but give up after a few weeks or months because it takes too much time and effort.

Learning a new language effectively requires a high level of motivation, and nothing motivates the brain like perceiving language as a barrier to communication. Think to yourself: how enthusiastic would you be to read a book if you desperately wanted to, even if you didn't need it?

Elderly people's travel experiences

According to an article in Scientific American, people who learned a language by immersion - meaning they lived in a foreign country more than 90 percent of the time - spoke it significantly better than those who learned it in school.

In other words: spend three months in, say, a tiny Italian village where hardly any English is spoken, and when you return you'll be fluent in the language, provided you interact with people every day. Yes, it will be awkward at first, and you will be tired of looking at people's confused faces, but in a few weeks you will have learned the basic greetings, and in a month you will be able to order anything from menus and markets. And in three months you'll be able to hold a basic conversation: you could learn the language for years and never reach that level of fluency!

If tactics like moving to a new country (or living there for a few months) don't work, join a community of native speakers and meet them as often as possible. Go online and socialize with other native speakers. Read books and watch movies (without subtitles if possible). And devote a few hours a day to language immersion. If you train your brain in these situations, you'll be ready to learn and memorize words, phrases, and pronunciation much faster.

Repetition is the key to success

It is scientifically proven that immersion is the best way to learn a language because you are put into an environment where you are forced to practice greetings, vocabulary, verb conjugations, questions, numbers, pronunciation, and other aspects of the language over and over and over and over and over until you understand and are understood.

The best way to learn a language is repetition! And that means regular repetition. In other words, repeating a word or concept over and over again at regular intervals so that it becomes a permanent part of your memory. You know the feeling when a phrase you struggled with at the beginning of your learning journey becomes more and more familiar, until one day you find yourself saying it without thinking about it!

Practice speaking as often as you can

One of the challenges people face when learning a new language is getting the pronunciation and accent right. Some people have a natural talent for facial expressions, while others find it incredibly difficult to pronounce certain words and sounds. As a result, your speech sounds unintelligible to those you are trying to communicate with.

While you will never sound like a native speaker, you can improve your pronunciation and accent with practice and persistent repetition. It is also helpful to practice with a voice recorder or other speaker who can correct your pronunciation.


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