Learning a language is a valuable skill to develop, but you may have heard that picking up a new language for the first time as an adult can be really difficult.
Monika Schmid, Head of Department of Language and Linguistic Science at the University of York in the UK researches psycholinguistics of bilingualism – ‘in other words, what happens in the brain of people who know more than one language,’ she tells Wellbeing by Teacher.
She started learning Spanish herself a few years ago, and says the idea that it’s much more difficult to learn a new language as an adult is nonsense. ‘What is true, of course, is that all learning gets harder as you get older.’
Learning a new language as an adult
‘There is a theory, which is very interesting to linguists that there are certain, probably fairly small “pockets” of language, in particular grammar and phonetics, which possibly do become inaccessible after a certain age,’ she explains. ‘For all of the practical purposes of speaking and using a language, those are not very important at all.’
This hesitancy that adults tend to experience when it comes to learning a new language is unwarranted, Schmid says, because we can become fluent in a new language at any age.
So, while we may find it more challenging to find the time learn something new as an adult, it’s certainly not our age alone that is holding us back from being able to successfully learn a new language.
‘My Spanish now is developing much more slowly than my French did when I was in school. The biggest reason for this is that, when I was in school, I wasn't doing a 60-hour-per-week job and pursuing French as my hobby – I attended all my classes and largely did all my homework,’ Schmid shares.
Consistency is key
If you’re looking into learning a new language yourself, the options for study can be pretty overwhelming. There are in-person classes, online classes, books or apps.
Ultimately, whatever works best for you is the best route to take, Schmid says. ‘I like reading in other languages (I've started several by reading the translation of the Harry Potter novels), but I'm really bad at using apps. Other people might find it great to go to evening classes where they can meet and talk to other people.
‘Doing it regularly and consistently is far more important than what you actually do, and enjoying it is key to making it a habit. From a pedagogical point of view, they're all perfectly appropriate ways to support learning.’
Benefits of learning a new language
We can benefit in many different ways from learning a new language. For instance, analysts have estimated people who know an additional language earn more money – up to US$128 000 over their lifetime to be exact.
Other benefits include connecting with different cultures and societies, increased executive functioning in the brain, and potentially other health outcomes (for example, delayed onset of dementia). And, of course, the enjoyment and satisfaction of learning a new language should not be overlooked.
‘I started learning Spanish at the same time at which I took up a new role in my department, which was incredibly demanding and exhausting. My Spanish classes did a lot to help me maintain some sense of mental equilibrium, because those three hours were the only times in the week when the constant background noise in my head was switched off and I was able to focus entirely on something that wasn't work-related. That was worth more to me than I can say,’ Schmid says.