Neuroscience has just provided us with a key insight into the topic about the importance of age in learning languages. Many times research of this kind is either not conclusive or is so narrow as to be not that useful. In this instance we have been provided with some gold.
One of the bigger problems facing language learners that struggle to learn a language to their desired levels are their beliefs about themselves, what they are capable of and what are the best ways to learn. The power of these beliefs on what we can achieve has been made before. Our ability to question our beliefs and not have them constrain our possibilities is a key if we have been struggling.
Now we have been provided with some research that can help us open our mind and help dispel some of our doubts. It can also to give us indications as to what can help us learn, no matter what is our age. How many times have you heard, “It is harder to learn as you get older. In fact, why even try once you are over….. years old.” This belief goes deep within many, if not most people.
The bit of research I am going to look into comes from Edna Andrews, Nancy & Jeffrey Marcus Professor of Slavic & Eurasian Studies, author of “Neuroscience & Multilingualism”. I don’t want to get too technical here, however I will mention that Professor Andrews has been working with a team with fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), analysing a host of data on what the brain does as it learns. They have reached many interesting insights. The following quote, taken from Duke Today provides some real gems.
” As a result, we were able to analyze the degree to which fMRI can track language acquisition and derive empirically valid information……… In terms of understanding the relationship of brain and language, our results fit in with the important findings that proficiency is a more important factor than age of acquisition, and with higher proficiency there are more similarities in the mappings of one’s first and second (or third) languages.”
I have italicised and bolded parts of the quote for us to focus on and have reworded below what was said to help unpack this bit of gold!
- Proficiency is the main game. Namely it is what we can do in the new language (as we learn) which is critical. Proficiency is all about use of the language in the most natural setting we can find. So we are not talking about just understanding here, nor about grammar exercises, nor about drills! What we need to focus on in learning is what we can do in using the language.This is all about what you are able to understand (in both listening and reading), what you are able to say in a conversation and what you are able to write (in a way that people understand).The belief that the traditional forms of language instruction/learning ( grammar study, drilling, memorisation etc) can help language use is just that. There is no proof that it will. By focussing our efforts on using the language we are moving in the direction we need to.
- Our age is less of an issue for learning outcomes as long as we focus on proficiency. Namely, no matter what is your age, you can learn a new language as long as you focus on proficiency! You may have hoped for it and even believed it, now you have proof that you can learn a new language later in life!
Or put another way, for those that consider themselves as young, you will struggle to learn a new language at ANY age if you don’t focus on proficiency.
Take a moment dwell on this and let that sink in!
- The more we focus on proficiency in the new language, the closer our mind map for that language will be to our first language mind map. What the research tells us is that the mind map of proficient users of a new language approximates their first language one. So the sooner we can get our new mind map to approximate first language acquisition one, the faster we we will learn the new language.
In other words, learn in ways that encourage use of the language, from day one. Don’t waste your time learning in ways that don’t immediately improve your language use. So, for example, working on grammar exercises, drills, repetition are ways that don’t directly build our proficiency. We may believe they do. However, the evidence from the research shows that it does not build the kind of mind maps we need.
So, look for ways of learning that directly improve your proficiency. Shy away from classes, exercises, books that don’t do that.
There is clearly a lot more to effective language learning than just working at proficiency, however without having that as a prime focus, it is like going for a walk with a ball and chain tied to your leg. Everything is harder than it needs to be. Understanding that using a language is really a skill not something like studying history or geographers is another way of looking at understanding why proficiency is a central key.
(Apologies to the historians or geographers who will argue that they are skills too! 🙂 Though I think the lay person will understand what I mean when I say this!)
So make sure that whatever you do helps you improve your ability to use the language. Don’t just think, “My language will improve because I am doing some language learning activity”. See if it really is so, in terms of what you are able to do with the language. That way you will find that your language learning will be put on a better footing, no matter what your age. In fact doing this has been shown to be more important than your age in determining your chances of success!