Are you Too Old to Learn a Language?

Are you Too Old to Learn a Language? post image
young language learning

Language genius? I don’t think so.

There is a pretty common myth that gets circulated a lot about the fact that younger people are better language learners than older folks. As matter of fact, there seems to be a common fact that gets circulated that at a certain age (around 13 or so) your brain solidifies and it becomes a lot more difficult to learn a language.

But, is that really true? Does it really become a lot more difficult to learn a language after that window of opportunity closes? This is a question that has been researched several times in order to try to find the true answer, but the short answer is well, kind of, but not as bad as you think.

Let’s take a look at it from another angle though. Children are actually incredibly terrible language learners. Absolutely the worst of the bunch to be honest. You don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at just one example of how absolutely horrible they are at learning languages.

5 Year Home Stay, but a N4 Level

At about 5 years of age, a child might have about an N4 level in Japanese (and that is really stretching it). Actually, they don’t even learn any kanji until they are 7, so they are a little short of the 300 they need to know for the test, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt just for demonstration purposes. They still would need to be a baby genius to use a lot of the more complicated N4 grammar, but again, let’s just assume this baby is ‘gifted’.

So, if we subtract the first 6 months because babies are usually just floating around through life in a haze. Actually, babies can’t hear or see clearly until at least 3 months, so they are basically drunk that whole time. I can personally vouch for our little one doing the same. Okay, so you subtract those 6 months and you get 4.5 years of nothing but English practice. Parents will probably squeeze in some music or numbers practice in there, but for the most part it is a lot of English.

And a baby has all of its needs taken care of. They are practically staying at a 5 star resort, being waited on, hand and foot. Someone bathes them, feeds them, even completely coats their entire environment with equipment to keep them from injuring themselves. Every possible consideration is thought of and compensated for.

Now, there is a little bit of stress here and there. They do have to learn to crawl, walk, and some other motor skills. And yes that takes some time, but let’s face it, not that much time.

They don’t have a job to worry about, bills to pay, arguments with family and friends, deadlines, climate change, doomsday approaching, etc… They don’t care about any of that, as they will happily demonstrate to you on a daily basis. They are only concerned about sleeping, eating, and throwing things on the floor for you to pick up. That’s their job, basically.

You Would be able to Do it, too

Now, if you met someone who had stayed at a 5 star resort for 4.5 years surrounding by two people that speak nothing but Japanese all day, you would expect that person to be pretty darn fluent, wouldn’t you? Okay, so it isn’t exactly the same, so you might have to add in that the someone is also doing strength training for 3 to 4 hours a day as well (to compensate for a baby learning to walk, handle a spoon, drink from a cup, etc…).

But, yet, a 5 year old can generally talk at about an N4 level, and that, like I said, is stretching it. The pronunciation is still a little unclear and they make plenty of mistakes, so not quite that level, but close enough for this blog post.

So why do we go around saying that babies are such great language learners? They are actually quite horrendous language learners if you think about it. They are just surrounded by the language on a daily basis and learn it in a fairly pressure free environment. They learn the language out of true personal desire to communicate with others and use it as a tool.

So, although I think the JLPT is an amazing way to measure your level and give you an idea of where you are with proficiency. You should stop short of letting it worry you. Yes, set goals to work toward, but don’t feel too bad if you miss. You learn more from mistakes than from getting everything correct.

Go Out and Break Stuff

Learn like a child. Take some Japanese words and mangle them with someone today. The cards aren’t staked against you just for being old. In a lot of ways, you can learn faster than the little ones, just give it a try.

Do you like to break stuff? Tell me about it in the comments.

Do you know someone that believes in this age myth? Send them a link to this article and debunk it for them.

Photo by Shino 志野

{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Isaura January 12, 2013, 3:03 pm

    I am 49 years old, but I don’t think I am too old to learn a language. In my childhood I was learning only Russian and Latin, but I didn’t take any Russian nor Latin language proficiency test. Since 20 years old I was travelling a lot, and I didn’t want to be “analphabetic” in any foreign country, so I was learning the language of countries where I wanted to travel to. So I began learning Greek, Arabic, Hebrew language since 20, 28, 35 years old, and after 1,5, 2, 4 years learning I took the highest Greek, Arabic and Hebrew language proficiency test, and I passed first time. And I began my Japanese learning since 47 years old.
    And in Hungary there lived a great language talent. She was speaking 17 languages. She was Kádár János’s interpretator. And she began learning Hebrew since 90 years old. She wrote a book: “How I am learning languages”. She was 95 years old when she died.

  • Victor Valle January 14, 2013, 4:47 am

    「Go Out and Break Stuff」very inspiring! Nice post indeed!
    I’m 27 years old. One year learning japanese. And sometimes I get worried because I’ve decided to learn japanese ‘too late’.

  • Louise January 14, 2013, 5:44 pm

    Is that picture of your little one?

    Having a young baby does make studying harder but I find it motivating, I want her to know from my example that no matter how old she gets she can always pursue her dreams. I think there’s a lot of weird messages in Western Culture generally that your life is over when you hit 30.

    • Clayton MacKnight January 21, 2013, 4:04 am

      No, unfortunately, not my little one. She hasn’t made a debut in public. Maybe someday soon.

      I think it is important to keep studying when you have little kids to set an example too. It’s one thing to tell them to study, its another for them to join you. 🙂

      • Kerstin January 21, 2013, 5:03 pm

        You are so right, Clayton! Best comment ever 🙂

  • Geetha Menon January 20, 2013, 3:56 am

    Hi Mac,
    What you said about age for learning language is so true. I am 61 and still enjoying learning and teaching Japanese. I feel good doing it. For me that’s all that matters. I take the exams and I pass off and on. Now on N2.

    • Clayton MacKnight January 22, 2013, 3:12 pm

      Wow, that’s pretty inspiring to hear. I want to keep studying and using another language as long as I can. You have to keep your mind going somehow!

  • Milan January 20, 2013, 3:10 pm

    Well, you are right about that it’s not impossible to learn another language when you’re older, but definitely it’s much harder.

    I’m sorry to tell you, but you’re not right about that “children N4” thing.
    First, the language is not the only thing that they are learning. Everything is new to them.
    Second, if you are learning another language you can use your mother tongue as “leverage”, for example: if you are interested what “Sora” is in Japanese, you will look it in the dictionary, but when you’re a little kid everything is new to you and you are experiencing it for the first time. When you’re a baby there is no dictionaries. 🙂

    Younger brain is much powerful then the older one (especially if you didn’t “learn to learn” through the years), but it doesn’t mean that you’ll can’t learn another language. It only means that you are need to work harder and you will succeed in some point.

    • Clayton MacKnight January 22, 2013, 3:16 pm

      I’m not sure I understand you very clearly about ‘children N4’ thing. I used it as an extreme example in the article. Most 4 year olds I’ve met aren’t nearly as competent, but there is always that genius. I wanted to try to show the best case scenario.

      I do agree with using your mother tongue as ‘leverage’. It really helps to know one language (and be pretty good at it) when you go to learn another language.

  • Kerstin from Fluentlanguage January 20, 2013, 5:56 pm

    This is a great post, and definitely one I agree with. There is often a perception accrediting way too much importance to the cognitive development of a baby, and too little to its circumstances, making it an easy reason why language learning just isn’t possible. Your post does a great job of looking at it from the other angle!

    • Clayton MacKnight January 22, 2013, 3:18 pm

      Thanks, it is always good to look at things from another angle. Nice blog, btw, love the clean design.

      • Kerstin February 11, 2013, 11:36 am

        Thank you, much appreciated. All credit to Squarespace for their lovely templates. I’ve noticed another thing recently, which is that my adult students often struggle with the simple fact that they are outside the school/university environment which makes them revise and study all the time. No one’s going to learn a language quickly in an hour a week, but sometimes just looking at the notes is a thing I have to remember to remind people of!

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