The science behind why it is never too late to learn French

Picking up a new language alters the make-up of our brain and helps keep it mentally sharp

Language learning may be harder in later life, but not necessarily for the reasons you may think
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Learning a new language is a process that can often seem overwhelming when starting from scratch as an adult.

People generally hold the view that it is easier to learn a language earlier in life, and that it is much more difficult – or even impossible – to become bilingual as an adult.

Starting to learn later in life however is not necessarily as much of a barrier as you may think, and may even come with some unexpected benefits.

Below, we look at what happens when you begin to learn a language as an adult, and what you can do to overcome one of the biggest stumbling blocks you are likely to face.

What changes happen to your brain when you learn a new language?

Numerous studies show learning a new language – even as an adult – alters the chemical make-up of your brain and can provide a host of benefits.

People who have been bilingual from a young age have brains that are neurologically different from people who only speak one language.

Bilingual people have more neurons in their brain than those who are not, providing a denser ‘grey matter’.

In addition, there are changes to the contents of ‘white matter’ in a bilingual brain.

White matter is a system of nerves which connects all four lobes of the brain and coordinates communication between them. It also controls how the brain learns and functions.

People who speak two languages fluently have increased white matter integrity, further strengthening these connections. Speaking two languages also reduces white matter decay as you age.

Read more: Why exercise can put you on the fast track to being fluent in French

Can you only properly learn a language when young?

There are many assumptions about the ‘critical period’ for language learning in a person’s life, which is thought to be before the age of 12.

While this period may be optimum for learning a second language due to the plasticity of children's brains, that does not mean it is not possible later on in life.

The brain is built to learn throughout your life and still adapts, changes, and develops far beyond this initial ‘critical period’.

The increased benefits to both white and grey matter are still present in those who became bilingual in later life, even if not to the same level.

New experiences play an important part of creating new connections in the brain and strengthening the nervous system, which are then maintained through practice.

One such example of this is learning a new language as an adult, as it combines having a new experience (learning the language) with continual practice in both familiar and unfamiliar settings.

This is one of the reasons it is thought that language learning helps to prevent dementia and degenerative neurological conditions because it provides the brain with an effective workout.

Read also: 13 shortened words and phrases you will hear in spoken French

Are there risks to learning a language as an adult?

Learning a language does involve putting yourself ‘at risk’, however this is only in the sense of worrying what people think about you and not any potential damage to your brain.

When learning or trying to speak a new language, people are prone to making mistakes or ending up in situations they find embarrassing, such as forgetting a simple word in a sentence or being unable to ask the shop assistant what you are looking for.

Children and young people are more open to risk and care less about these experiences, nor what others think of them.

Adults, on the other hand, are usually more ‘risk’ or embarrassment averse, and consciously try to protect themselves from these situations.

This is often the main aspect which holds back adult learners, rather than a biological or intelligence reason.

Adult learners are more cautious with trying out their new language due to this worry of being wrong, while young people who are more open to making mistakes, which they can learn from and helps them master the language quicker.

Communicating, or problem solving?

Another theory is that adults often approach language learning as a problem solving activity rather than simply a means of communication.

This immediately puts up a barrier as it is seen as a challenge to overcome rather than a simple method of transmitting information and building connections with other people.

There is also a suggestion that language learning is heavily linked to an individual’s motivation – while many children begin learning a language from a young age in school, proportionally very few go on to speak a second language fluently.

This is because – especially for children in Anglophone countries – they lack the motivation to do so, because they do not see it as a useful skill to develop.

Thomas Bak, Ph.D., a neuroscientist from the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, used the example of a 92 year-old woman who had only started learning Russian at 56.

She continued to do a PhD at the age of 75 on Russian poetry and then by 92 was one of the most acclaimed translators of Russian poetry into English in the world.

Her motivation to learn the language was the driving force behind the skill, and she was willing, even at her age, to begin from scratch and put in the required hours.

The moral of the story, then? While as adults we may face additional challenges in language learning, much of these are mental rather than biological, meaning we can physically overcome them to learn.

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