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The Perks of Learning a Foreign Language at an Older Age

man looking at a tablet

Xǐxùn. Bonnes nouvelles. ‘Akhbar sar. Buenas noticias.

Or in English, “good news.” Research shows it’s never too late for learning a foreign language at an older age, and doing it can be incredibly beneficial, especially for seniors.

New languages: Easier with age? 

We’ve all been told at one point or another that learning a foreign language at an older age is very difficult. There’s a notion that second languages are the domain of the young. This idea stems from the notion of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form and restructure synaptic connections. While it’s true neuroplasticity declines as we age, experts now believe it doesn’t affect our ability to learn a second language as much as we thought.

Professor Catherine Snow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education shares her opinion on learning a foreign language at an older age. “The evidence clearly demonstrates that there is no critical period for second-language learning, no biologically determined constraint on language-learning capacity that emerges at a particular age, nor any maturational process which requires that older language learners function differently than younger language learners.”

In fact, older adults learning a second language have advantages younger learners lack. They’re more motivated and understand the value of consistent study habits. They possess larger vocabularies and can draw on their life experience to make word-to-word associations. They’re also more likely to seek out a social setting where they can practice what they’ve learned.

What are the benefits of learning a foreign language at an older age?

Learning a second language exercises your brain. Even with just a word a day, this challenging new knowledge structurally and functionally alters the brain’s physiology. Languages develop new neural pathways, make new connections, and enhance neuroplasticity.

Additionally, research from the largest study yet to study the effects of bilingualism and dementia finds that people who can speak more than one language delay the symptoms of dementia — up to five years later than monolingual people. It’s thought that speaking more than one language leads to better development of the areas of the brain that handle executive functions and attention tasks, helping to protect a person from the onset of dementia.

How technology has changed learning a foreign language at an older age.

No more headsets or memorizing lists of words. The technology for learning a foreign language has changed dramatically, making it much easier and quicker for you to build a vocabulary, develop proper grammar, and eventually become fluent. With lessons delivered through learning apps on your phone or other mobile device, it’s a “learning on the go” model that allows you to practice words and phrases at your own pace, without having to be in a classroom or in front of a teacher. Interactive features that use video, music, voice recognition or visual prompts also make it easier to digest and retain information.   

Popular Language Apps

Some of these apps are free, while others require a fee to unlock more than the most basic option. The beauty of a learning app is that it’s a small investment for a big return. Try one approach, and if you don’t like the results, try something else.

Babbel is structured much like a foreign language course you’d see on a school curriculum. The realistic scenarios are designed by linguists, offering dialogues where you practice variations of the word or phrase.  

Duolingo offers bite-sized lessons in a game format where you race against the clock. It begins with the most basic words and levels up to simple sentences. This app teaches you to listen, write and speak in your language of choice. The addition of elements like learning streaks and in-lesson grading keeps things interesting.

FluentU teaches through language immersion, using real-world videos such as a movie clip, a music video, or a person speaking in the language you’re learning.

Memrise is a language-learning website designed around a three-step process. You’ll begin with basic words and phrases, progress to audio and video clips narrated by native speakers, and then move on to grammar lessons and reviews. 

Rosetta Stone uses a patented speech recognition software to fine-tune your pronunciation from the very first lesson. It immerses you in real-world conversations and offers help with translations and perfecting your accent.  

Rype is based on personalized one-on-one lessons between you and your personal instructor. You connect with your teacher over a video call during a lesson that lasts 30 or 60 minutes. There are 100 teachers for any of the seven languages.  

Ni hao. Bon jour. Marhabaan. Hola.

Say “hello” to Freedom Village. We believe there’s no limit to your personal and intellectual growth. We partner with nearby Hope University to offer continuing education programs for our residents through the HASP program. HASP stands for Hope Academy of Senior Professionals and is a peer-led institution for learning in retirement. The program offers noncredit courses spanning the fine arts, social studies, humanities, science, medicine and technology. Apart from its variety of classes, lectures, study groups, meetings and events, the HASP program supports SIGs (small interest groups) — member initiated and directed groups that meet, learn, and explore activities of common interest. 

Interested in learning more about our vibrant setting and how we support lifelong learning? Let us know. Whether you’re an art or science enthusiast, are interested in learning a second language, or prefer to delve into service opportunities, we’ll connect you with like-minded people at our friendly community. Contact us to learn more.