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

By Sylvan Hardy

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 hear the slosh 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.