Expat Life

Learning a second language: It’s easy when we’re young but harder as we grow older

By Deke Castleman and David Morrill

Children pick up language easily. Their nervous systems make new neural connections at lightning speeds. Computer simulations of neural activity in the early years of life look like all the cars in Los Angeles squeezed onto the Indianapolis Speedway racing at 200 miles an hour. Indeed, babies’ brains are capable of acquiring, simultaneously, two and even three languages. Of course, it takes a rich and supportive home environment for the optimal outcome, but any baby can do it.

Children pick up second languages quickly.
Children pick up second languages quickly.

As children, we learned language simply by absorbing the sounds, words, phrases, and sentences that we heard, the same as practically everything else we learned about the world as kids. We were responding to sounds in the womb. Up until about four months of age, all language, to us, was music, with, perhaps, a few familiar tunes.

Then we began to discover the units of speech, where one word ends and another begins. The first word we recognized was our own name, distinguished by sounds and stress patterns. Then more words started coming in: “mama” and “papa,” for example.

Then we started attaching meanings to words. At six months, babies can use the word “mama” for their own mothers, distinguishing them from other women.

At 12 months, we started recognizing words as labels for objects, like “hands” and “crackers” and “Elmo.”

Then we learned to combine words into sentences. By about age three, we could string five, six, even seven words together. And we kept building and building on our language skills until, at around age 10, we were fully capable of non-childish everyday first language, such as English.

Think of that: thousands upon thousands of hours, spread over ten years, of hearing and using English to get a firm grasp on it. And that’s when our minds were pure sponges for it.

In elementary school, we were introduced to parts of speech and learned to use words, such as “noun” and “verb” and “object,” as labels for other words. And we built on those concepts. We learned more words for words (grammar, after all, is mainly labeling words to understand the architecture of language, similar to all the materials used in construction of a skyscraper) until, finally, around the eighth grade, about age 14, most of us took our last formal course in grammar. And that’s the last time most of us gave much thought to our first language — its words, rules, organization, and logic.

Learning a second language at an older age

Then there’s the little matter of learning a language with hardening arteries, creaky joints, gray hair, and shrinking brains.

One indication of how easily you’ll pick up a second language in later life is how well you did in your first language. If English, for example, was your worst subject, or you did well but hated it, chances are you’ll resist Spanish, if only unconsciously, or you won’t learn as quickly as other people. But if you liked writing, if you enjoyed parsing and diagramming sentences, if you got off on grammar, if you loved vocabulary, if your mother had to yell at you to “put down the damn book and watch some television!”, chances are you’ll have an easier time of it.

Either way, unlike kids, adults don’t have thousands of hours to learn a second language. We’re not in our Wonder Bread years. Far from being sponges, our heads are more like coconuts: hammer hard on the outside and sloshy on the inside.

On the other hand, we do possess certain advantages over children. So never let anyone tell you, and never try to convince yourself, that you’re too old to learn a new language. Most people can. (And, by the way, people who play musical instruments, like those who were good at English, seem to have an easier time of it.)

Older folks have the advantage of not having to start from scratch to learn a second language. We already have a first language, so we can use what we know of the old one to organize our learning of the new one.

Many elements of language can be categorized, analyzed, and assimilated by adults more rapidly than children. We’re well-equipped with the knowledge, experience, and analytic ability to recognize what’s already understandable, as well as what’s completely unintelligible, compared to our first language. And we can focus on the similarities and the differences to accelerate our learning. That’s called “explicit learning,” basically, what’s done in a classroom or tutoring session and what you do at home when you study. The other half of second-language acquisition is called “implicit learning,” during which it all becomes operational.

Language isn’t just a set of sounds and words and phrases and rules that you can memorize for simple meanings. Far from it. Language is a complex system for communicating — and more fundamentally, for structuring thought. Certainly, the most important way to assimilate into a new culture is to learn its language.

And vice versa: The most important way to learn a new language is to assimilate into the culture that uses it.

And that’s why, if you’ve already expatriated to Ecuador or anywhere in Latin American, and haven’t begun to tackle the native language, or if you’re planning to immigrate and are wondering just how to go about learning the language, you’re in luck, big time. Here, you’re swimming in a sea of Spanish. The language is all around you. And it’s not going away.

But you have to be ready for it. You have to want to learn it. You have to be prepared to put in a lot time and effort. And as we’ve said, it won’t be easy. It won’t happen quickly. It will require hard work and diligence. It will entail frustrations and setbacks. You will be intimidated and embarrassed. But you have to dive in, somewhere, sometime.

  • Explain one thing: how does not knowing Spanish adversely affect the population? Seems like it just makes it easier for them to rip you off.

    • Joanne Bee

      This is a very cynical opinion. If that is how you feel, it would be better to stay in your home country, where people never take advantage of you or rip you off.

      • J Doe

        Don’t get me wrong, I love it here, and I resist efforts by people who find it easier just to stereotype a given group of people. However, getting “gringoed” is fairly common here, and you can figure that out fairly easily if you start asking some of your Ecuadorian friends how much they’re paying in rent (compared to you), how much meat and produce they can buy at Feria Libre (compared to you), and the list goes on. That said, however, I’ve been with local people who have gone house-hunting or shopping at Feria Libre, and they typically have to do a little wheeling and dealing themselves to get the best price. So I don’t think it’s so much a matter of the local population expecting us to pay more, but more because we lack the language skills and an understanding of the local culture to bargain and negotiate on prices effectively. I mean, there have a few times when the “gringoing” was rather blatant, like in Plaza de las Flores, I was looking at a particular plant, and the woman at that particular plant-stand told me that it was six dollars. I started looking at a few other plants when an Ecuadorian woman walked up and started looking at the same plant. The seller told this woman that the plant was THREE dollars. Neither of us even asked the price–we were just informed of what was expected if either one of us chose to go ahead and buy it. The new woman didn’t buy it, so I walked back over and asked again how much it was. Again, I was told “six dollars.” Then I asked her in Spanish why she just told the other woman it was three dollars. She just shrugged, and said that I could now have it for FIVE dollars! “Why not three dollars?” I asked. Her response was to lower it to four-fifty. Unreal! I did walk away at that point.

  • MATTHEW HAYES

    Very timely but also very well written. Thanks Guys.

  • MATTHEW HAYES

    Further: I have been here 7 years and do not speak the language. Why? Probably because I have not been sure I would stay. Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a bit lazy about such things at age 75. However, having just come from a hospital stay and surgery here in Cuenca can assure you that life here could be considerably enhanced by proficiency in the language. It is a bit pathetic for a guy with my education to be relying on taxi drivers and the kind neighbor to assist me through the most basic of challenges. In a way, I commend the government for attempting to smooth out the conflict arena but also, in the process, will make life for all Gringos more productive. Do I look forward to the learning challenge? No! Do I get it? Of course. Also keep in mind that such an action could not occur in a country much larger than Ecuador. In a sense, we are fortunate that the government even gives a twit for the harmony of the folks at this level. Enough.

  • I doubt either one of the editors of this book knows Spanish very well on a comprehensive basis. It is nothing personal, but after interacting with many expats in this community, I have learned most people are FOC.when it comes to evaluating their Spanish language knowledge.

    P.S.

    I would like to challenge Lee Dubbs to offer standarized Spanish proficiency exams in his school, so that we can put the bullsh*ters to the test. This isn´t about mandatory testing, but expecting people to walk the talk.

  • David Akins

    When we moved to Cuenca in 2011, my wife and I took a Spanish course through the local chamber of commerce. Deke Castleman was the teacher. He was probably about a year ahead of us in regard to his knowledge of the Spanish language at the time. That did not mean he was not a good teacher. As a matter of fact, he was probably about the best teacher I have ever had in any course. We were very disappointed that he did not return to teaching through the chamber. He has a very good way of getting the point across and encouraging people to learn. I don’t know where his knowledge level lies now, but he certainly helped me get a good start on learning the language.

    While I am not fluent, I found I knew the language better and was certainly more interested and/or dedicated to learning it than most others in Cuenca that I had met. My problem is that I have two companies that I run (no, I am not the typical retiree who has moved to Ecuador) and my time was limited. Nonetheless, I consider myself a low Intermediate speaker of the language. I did not understand others who were retired and spent their time watching TV or regurgitating the news or conspiracy theories instead of enriching their lives by attempting a new language.

    We have since had to return to the U.S. (and its stresses and expense) for family reasons. We had planned to stay in Cuenca several more years, but ‘life happens’. We prefer the stress free environment which is provides. It certainly provides much opportunity to enrich one’s life through learning of Spanish. Knowing the language helps you to learn more about the culture, mix with the local population, and prevent yourself from getting into too much trouble or being taken advantage of through ignorance of the language and/or culture.

    I thought the above article was very plausible. I suppose I am the exception to the rule of being good in English (which I am not) but somehow can learn Spanish. Aptitude tests in the Marine Corp 40+ years ago showed learning a language was my best aptitude, but returning to rural Georgia as a civilian did not present the need to learn Spanish at the time. Ironically, many rural Georgia towns now have significant Spanish speaking people. Actually, in taking the Spanish courses I have taken (but mostly self-study courses), I have learned much of the English rules I did not learn while growing up. I still don’t particularly care to learn the English rules, but it does help in the learning of Spanish.

    I would encourage people to not shoot themselves in the foot before trying to learn a new language. Don’t assume you are too old to learn. Many people have had repetitive jobs that did not require regular habits of learning new skills and thus may need to practice ‘learning’ again. Do it! Don’t give up before starting. Yes, it will probably be difficult at first. Persistence is more productive than having natural ability in the majority of things that we do.

  • Pixelvt

    I saw the connection with music and language thru my daughter. She started playing violin and flute at a young age and became very good. Then she started learning spanish in high school, we to Ecuador for almost 6 months before completing high school, and became very fluent, and now she teaches Spanish to gringos in Cuenca. Music is just another language

  • David Naccari

    Duolingo (https://www.duolingo.com/) is a great way to learn Spanish (and numerous other languages) – it is free! Commit yourself to completing one lesson a day (without any mistakes) and you will be amazed at the results. Of course, there is no substitute for boldly diving into conversations with native speakers without fear or embarrassment over making mistakes – the locals are very forgiving.

  • baseballmh1012

    Did anyone see the title typo? I try to watch novelas to help me with the language and obviously any time spent living embedded in the Hispanic society will force you to learn more Spanish. We are still two years from moving, but I am trying to better my “Survival Spanish”!

    • Editor

      Thanks for catching my goof in the title — learning not leaning. The skinny “r” makes it easy to miss.

  • EcuBananas

    “So never let anyone tell you, and never try to convince yourself, that you’re too old to learn a new language.” Well said…

  • Josh

    Spanish in the US
    I wonder why the same emphasis on Hispanics learning English, the national language in the US, is not emphasized there. Instead, every effort is made to provide Spanish for legal and illegal immigrants in every area of life.

    • J Doe

      Let me see, might you be a Gringolandian who’s been here for several years, yet relies solely on your personal taxi driver (who happens to speak English) to take you everywhere you need to go? Not saying you are… but most of the time when I see people falling back on this old, tired copout, it’s because they’re feeling a bit defensive.

    • Joanne Bee

      The TRUTH is that most Latinos who move to the US want to learn English. They also have to work full time, and usually more, at menial jobs for menial wages as well as take care of their homes and families (by the way, not an excuse for retired expats in Spanish speaking countries). In previous generations there was a 2 generation language replacement rate (most immigrants lose their native language after 2 generations) now it is 1.5 generations. Older people and workers who arrive seldom get fluent, but their children often cannot speak Spanish. These are the statistics. Having taught at the University of Miami and Florida International University, I can attest to the fact. I had many, too many Latino students who could not speak any more than basic Spanish. It seems to be the case that “they” aren’t learning English because there are always new arrivals who can’t. But never let facts get in the way of ideology, or prevent you from using propaganda as a excuse for your own laziness.

  • Joanne Bee

    I recently posted on my blog about this. https://joannebretzer.com/2016/06/05/am-i-too-old-to-learn-a-new-language/ Your post goes into much better detail. In teaching English to second language learners, we have different methodologies for different groups of students. I would be interested in the proper methods for teaching, and learning, as a mature learner. Whatever that is, it isn’t the rote learning of grammar and vocab that is taught in Spanish language classes; a method that confounds and discourage older learners.

    • nards barley

      No, the discouraging part is the amount of time (years) and the effort required to get anywhere near fluency, plus the fact it can be tedious and boring. IMO, the goal for most expats should be survival Spanish which means memorizing a few dozen phrases and a handful of greetings. Most of the expats I know are quite content watching Netflix all day and going to gringo hangouts and finding facilitators and handymen who speak English.

      • J Doe

        The amount of time it takes is largely dependent on the learner, and how much effort they’re wiliing to put into it. “Survival Spanish,” I believe, is bit of a misnomer, as many expats consider survial-related language skills as being limited to basic greetings, “yo necesito ______,” and “Donde esta el baño?” If that’s what you’re recommending as a goal for “most expats,” then you’re selling a lot of people short. But what if you were out without your personal translator, and found yourself in an accident? Or had a heart attack? Could you tell the people in the emergency room which medications you were allergic to? Could you understand when your Spanish-speaking doctor started trying to explain your test results? What if you found yourself stranded somewhere, and the only way you could get a taxi would be to call the dispatcher yourself and give them your location? “Survival Spanish,” in my opinion, is a myth because I can’t think of a good enough program to cover every “survial”-related situation.

  • AAD

    “As children, we learned language simply by absorbing the sounds, words, phrases, and sentences that we heard,” this is the program for learning language, at any age.
    “Then there’s the little matter of learning a language with hardening arteries, creaky joints, gray hair, and shrinking brains.” all of this is a result of habits, not age. start good habits today.

  • Kimac

    For adults to successfully learn a new language you first pick-up a smidgin of grammar and vocabulary, after which you hope to integrate that knowledge into your being through practice. Immersive practice, like negotiating in a market, surrounded by reinforcing sounds, smells and touching, is one of the better ways. Optimally you would spend a modest amount of time in the morning with a teacher being introduced to a new structure or concept, with relevant vocabulary, and then have time to practice it in this way, preferably layering it over what you’ve covered in prior lessons. In any given language there is an order to which children pick-up (acquire) the grammar, vocabulary and syntax of a mother tongue, and that would be the order in which your teacher would guide you. This is kinda like how you learned your Beach Spanish: pathetic though it may be, it is fluent and it suffices
    Notice how RARELY courses are organized this way. Notice how DIFFICULT it is to discipline yourself to a program like this. When leaving the typical Spanish class, students might typically you go out for a beer with others, speaking English. Go figure why they don’t improve past memorized conjugations and the most simple structures. With kids, OTOH, life is total practice though play with a blank slate; adults do have an advantage in discipline, and when you see someone who speaks reasonable Spanish after 2-3 years, all things considered its a reasonable accomplishment, usually due to adult discipline and analytic abilities. Musicality helps immensely, and it supports acquiring spontaneous through play (or adult activities); if your ear is bad, then you’re left with discipline and you may never really understand people, even though you speak pretty well.
    Entonces. Find a teacher who can clearly present topics WITH WHICH YOU CAN ENJOY DAILY ACTIVE SUCCESS. Then go out and somehow (this becomes the toughest part) use what was covered that day over and over in a fun, real-life setting. The classroom alone does not cut it. Rinse and repeat.
    Obviously, the more you practice the better you will get. It’s like training yourself to use your left hand if your right-handed. NOT quite so obviously, whenever you speak English you are working against your goal. Just like when you cheat with your right hand. Hence the advantages of a truly immersive program. I gotta go.

    • nards barley

      ” if your ear is bad, then you’re left with discipline and you may never really understand people, even though you speak pretty well.”

      That’s me. I think those who undertake learning espanol should realize that they can bust their ass for years and never really be close to fluent since the listening part may not develop.