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Don’t let age be an obstacle to pursuing better French

Our brains may be slower but there are surprising advantages to learning a second language later in life, discovers Gillian Harvey

The experience of older age can be an advantage to learning a new language Pic: fizkes / Shutterstock

You might have heard that the older we get, the harder it is to pick up a second language. 

For some, this idea becomes a mental stumbling block – they write off their chances of fluency before tackling their first lesson. 

In fact, the idea that older brains will struggle more is not 100% accurate – and there may even be advantages for those choosing to learn a second language later in life. 

“As we age, we get slower – both mentally and physically,” says Thomas Bak, 61, cognitive neuroscientist and researcher in bilingualism at the University of Edinburgh. 

“But when it comes to learning, we can compensate in other ways. Perhaps you know a little French history or geography, for example, and are able to understand context more readily. 

You will often have a wider vocabulary, too, making it easier to recognise similarities between words.” 

Dr Bak, who recently started learning Swahili, adds: “In my class were some people in their 20s, and some in their 60s. 

Older students better at applying what they know

Those in their 20s seemed to learn vocabulary better, but older students were often better at applying what they knew.” 

He also insists we can still reach fluency as adults even if we have not studied a language as a child, giving the example of the novelist Joseph Conrad. 

“He only learnt English to fluency in his 20s,” says Dr Bak, “yet he became part of the canon. 

“Another example is the English author Mary Hobson, who started learning Russian at 56 so she could read War and Peace in its original form. 

Then at 75 she wrote a PhD in Russian poetry and in her 90s she won prizes for her translations of Russian poetry.” 

Barriers to fluency can be as much about perception as reality, continues Dr Bak, citing a recent paper by linguist Monika Schmid that showed many people learning French have more knowledge than they believe they have. 

Consider how you define ‘fluency’

It is also a good idea to consider how you define ‘fluency’. 

“Learning a language later might be problematic if your goal is to sound like a native,” Dr Bak says. 

Read more: Learning French is easier when you don’t sweat the small stuff

“But for me, accent is not a linguistic thing, it’s an anthropological one. 

“For example, someone from England who moves to Scotland will not sound Scottish, and vice versa. 

Accents have very little to do with language – they are more to do with social acceptance and feeling part of things.” 

His top tips for improving include creating opportunities for immersion. 

Read more: Mental benefits of learning French depend on using it in real life

“Use your language – even if you feel uncomfortable speaking, you can read the local paper, look at French posts on social media, etc,” he says. 

“If you are in a new place, reading a book about the region, its history or geography will help to develop your language, plus create a feeling of belonging and connection.” 

Despite advancing years, later life might be an ideal time to learn a language, Dr Bak concludes. 

“For a start, people often have more free time to dedicate to it. 

It’s also a great way to keep yourself mentally fit. 

“It’s like playing sport – you might not win Wimbledon aged 50, but I would argue it’s more important than ever to be active as you age.

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