In this post, I’ll show you that there’s no reason why you can’t get fluent in a foreign language when you’re in your 60s, 70s or older and why later life can be a great time to learn. If you’re looking for the ideal retirement project, look no further than learning a new language!
Now, even if you’re a relatively young retiree, energetic and in great health, you may doubt that later life is the time to learn a new language.
First: maybe you think adults of any age not as good as kids at learning a language.
Second: whatever the differences between adults and kids, you may wonder whether you’ve missed the boat by not getting fluent as a young(er) adult.
To begin, let’s look at these objections to learning a new language in retirement.
The adult advantage
It’s very true that some of the difference in ability between kids and adults of whatever age is due to differences in the child and adult brain.
Kids seem to be able to pick up a language better just from context (though it’s easy to underestimate just how much trial-and-error, frustration and struggle they experience. They are better at encoding new words into memory with fewer repetitions. They are better at getting the accent right.
Yet we all know adult learners who have achieved high levels of fluency and they’re not all blessed with that mythical “language gene”.
Adults have distinct cognitive advantages over kids. Adults have greater powers of reason and an ability to spot patterns. They are better at explicit learning (declarative memory). For example, they can be taught things like grammatical rules – it’s quicker than having to work them out. They can then apply them, so they don’t have to rely on just implicit learning (that’s to say on just intuitively “getting the hang of a language”) and then speaking it largely unconsciously (implicit learning/procedural memory).
It’s what I call the adult advantage.
Ok, you may be thinking, that may fine for young students but I’m not what I was in high school or college.
That’s may be so, but no, your brain is not too old….. Let me explain!
The cognitive ability of older adults: you have the brains
How does cognitive ability – raw brain power – develops as adults age?
It’s often thought that quick thinking and rapid recall of information start to decline as early as your earlier twenties.
The truth seems to be, though, that such “fluid intelligence” is a bundle of different abilities and that they peak at different ages.
You are probably best at the quick processing of info around age 20, with a (gradual) decline setting in early. However, according to a 2015 MIT/Massachusetts General Hospital Study by Hartshorne and Germine, short term memory (important for the first stage of vocabulary acquisition) continues to improve till about age 25 and then plateaus up to age 35. Sensitivity to others’ emotional states peaks in your the 40s and 50s.
As we grow older, our “crystallised” intelligence continues to develop: we continue to fill up our long -term memories with general knowledge.
The size of your vocabulary in your first language appears to peak in your 60s or 70s.
We can also widen out the understanding of “intelligence” beyond IQ test-type memory tests (of “fluid” or “crystallised” intelligence) to include the extra fire-power that comes from linking up different areas of knowledge acquired over the years, plus practical mental, emotional skills from decades in the workplace and raising a family.
These are what Phillip Ackerman, in a recent study, called the “dark matter” of adult intellect or “adult intelligence-as-knowledge” rather that as abstract reasoning.
Aside from abilities in physics, chemistry and biology (which depend a lot on abstract reasoning), he argued that older adults (40 to 60) equalled or outperformed younger adults.
“Many intellectually demanding tasks in the real world cannot be accomplished without a vast repertoire of declarative knowledge and procedural skills….knowledge does not compensate for a declining adult intelligence; it is intelligence!” While Ackerman’s study was not focussed on language acquisition, his emphasis on the procedural skills of older adults is encouraging. Speaking a language is, after all, a kind of skill that comes with a lot of accumulated practice and experience.
This may sound ok if you’ve already developed your skills in the practice of foreign language learning earlier in life.
It could help explain the success of older polyglots, who’ve already been at it for years.
What if you’re coming late to this particular game, though? What if you’re learning a language in retirement either as a complete novice or returning to languages for the first time since school?
The traditional wisdom is that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, even if that dog is still running rings round the quick-thinking pups in some fields, thanks to a deeper already-acquired knowledge of the world.
In more scientific terms, our brain’s ability form new connections and pathways – “neuroplasticity” – drops with age.
Now, though, there’s an increasing appreciation that the brain rewires itself with use. The ability to re-sculpt your grey matter is retained throughout life, even if it may indeed decrease somewhat with age.
This on-going ability is crucial, because learning a language is largely about developing a new set of connections in the brain.
As you learn a new skills, then, the brain changes. The better a learner gets in a language, the more the brain processes the language like a native would. That’s about the level of competency that you’ve reached, rather than your age.
In terms of pure brain power, it may be a bit harder to learn a language when you’re older, but your grey matter can bubble into action. If you start learning a language in retirement, even at 70 or 80, you probably find you have to repeat vocab more before it sticks than if you’d started from scratch in your twenties but, if you’re healthy, there’s no cognitive reason why you can’t be fluent by the time you’re 75 or 80.
By the way, it even seems that becoming bilingualism at an earlier age or learning a second or third language in old age, can help keep the brain young and delay the onset of Alzheimers, as scholars such as Edinburgh University’s Thomas Bak stress.
The time factor: in retirement you can put in the hours
Enough about the brain! Cognitive ability is not the only variable.
The amount of time you spend engaging with the language in an effective way is a hugely important determinant of how to get fluent. Depending on the language and how you go about it, can take 600 to 2000+ hours to get a good working knowledge.
Kids have hours and hours of passive and interactive exposure each day.
Unless adults are in full time language education or having to use a new language daily out there in real life, they will often have too much on their plates with work and family commitments. Keeping going with language learning requires careful planning to make – and defend – your study and practice slots.
If you’re thinking of learning a language in retirement, the good news is that you probably have the time again.
That’s great for attending classes, one-to-one work with a tutor and focussed self study (more on all that later).
A couple of hours a week in a class will never be decisive.
Remembering those hour totals, you’ll need loads of input. For you, that’s now no problem!
You can read extensively. If you can remember where you’ve put your reading glasses 😉 Begin first with “graded readers” (material aimed at learners at your level).
New technology makes not only written word but also extensive listening and watch a real possibility of which you have the time to take full advantage, for days on end.
Talking of listening, your hearing may have deteriorated in general. You no longer like being in noisy environments (that’s happened to me in my 50s) and have to turn the TV up (not yet…)….
Yes, these can be an additional challenges but one you can adapt your language learning to, just as you adapt in your first language.
Your attitude: can you reap fruits of maturity?
Personality and motivation can be just as important as raw ability in determining language learning success.
Even a bright young adult won’t get very far without the personality to put in the hours.
This is an area where kid’s benefit from their have-a-go attitude.
Adolescents and adults, in contrast, often don’t like the feeling of helplessness of the early stages of learning a language and the frustration that comes throughout as you stumble from mistake to mistake. They often get embarrassed and discouraged.
In fairness, adult learners they don’t have the doting, wrap-around encouragement the kids get for their incompetent babbling.
Adults also make greater demands on themselves when they’re learning a language. They want to discuss a wider range of different and more sophisticated topics than your average three- or ten-year-old and they want it much more quickly.
If you’re a senior who’s matured as well as aged, you could be in poll position to counter both of these aspects.
You may have reached a stage in your personal growth where you may be less worried what others think about you.
You may be more realistic and understand that many worthwhile accomplishments, including learning a language, take lots of time.
You are used to waiting and not after instant results….Maybe you’re more ready to savour the process.
Maybe you’re also more sceptical of the latest new fangled miracle language learning methods. You could even be less likely to fall for the latest flashy app that promises to reinvent the wheel of learning but often ends up being another distraction from true application and focus and just nurtures an illusion of progress.
Or not. Wisdom often comes with age but age is no guarantee of wisdom, is it?
Too set in your ways and self-image?
Another advantage that children have over adults is a more fluid identity.
As an older adult you could much more set in your ways and attitudes. This could make it harder to get into the spirit of a new language and culture.
One way to tackle this – at any age really – is to nurture your enquiring mind about the culture that comes with the language, including the culture around communication (for example set greetings and verbal formalities and body language), so as to avoid misunderstandings.
Look on language as adding a new dimension to your personality, not replacing what’s already there.
Successful language learners may need some of the attributes of a cultural chameleon but it’s not just about aligning yourself with the new culture.
From the beginning you can start to develop your vocab important in your existing hobbies and interests. Then you can try to start reading about them through the language, listening to specialist podcasts and contributing to discussion in chatrooms. If you do that you are, in a sense, aligning the new culture with you.
Getting social (1): a whole new type of travel
Talk of participation brings us to the social dimension: another likely key to anybody’s language learning success.
If you’re learning a language in retirement, you may have more opportunities to travel for longer to countries where your target language is spoken.
You’re more likely to have the time to spend a few weeks or even months on an intensive language course in such a country .
After full time education, it can be difficult for adults with limited vacation time and family commitments to set aside the time for such courses.
If a course is not for you, you can go on trips which give you the chance to get extensive exposure to the language out “in the field”.
At its simplest, this could just involve booking a package tour or a summer course in another subject through a travel agent or course provider located in your country of choice (so that the other participants are likely to be locals and their language will be the default). Such a bold move will probably work best when you’ve got the basics (in the case of group tours) or are already at a solid intermediate level (if you’re going to be learning about a new subject or a new skill through the medium of the language).
All in all, if your health and budget allow you to travel, the language dimension will open up wealth of options and help you to escape ending up in a tourist ghetto.
Getting social (2): learning in your local community…and from your armchair
For many older learners, though, learning at home or in their locality will be the default choice.
You could even choose to learn a language that is spoken where you live.
If you’ve retired to Spain or France, the language you need to learn is obvious (Basque, Catalan or Breton 😉 ). If you live in Wales or Ireland, maybe now is the time to start learning your heritage language. If you’re in the Americas, is there a native American language that is still spoken near you? What about migrant or refugee communities in your area? Can you get involved not just as a language learner, but in a wider way?
Look around and give it some thought. You could find yourself in for a wealth of enriching experiences.
Joining the typical evening or weekend group class for an hour or two a week won’t get you fluent in a language; the hours just don’t add up, especially since your exposure and production time will be diluted by the presence of the other students.
Yet success does not just depend on optimal efficiency. We’re not machines. As long as you take responsibility for your own wider learning, a weekly group class can be great for motivation.
Learning a language in retirement will get you out of the house and meeting people who share your goals.
Full-time intensive language group classes can be much more transformative and there may be suitable ones offered in your own country. You could plan to do a couple of one or two week-long courses at intervals to help set the rhythm of your year, giving you a change of scene and company. Working towards them could also give you a good shorter term goal. It can be a great motivator to have something concrete to aim for in the middle distance. A vague longer term goal like “getting fluent in Spanish” isn’t of much practical help as you try to decide what to do from week to wee. (I’m a great fan of language exams as a way of giving you a tangible goal, by the way).
The great thing is that if you’re short of funds or no longer mobile because of deteriorating health, the internet now offers all sorts of opportunities to connect actively with an online language mentor, tutor or a language exchange partner. You may also be able to take part in a group language challenge where the social dimension is provided via the net.
These approaches aren’t some second best compromise. For me and many other independent adult language learners, working in such ways with good self-study materials is central to how to we get fluent.
We find it it’s simply more efficient to learn via mass listening and reading input, focussed self-study and speaking practice via Skype or Facetime.
Grasp the opportunity with both hands
At best for the new retiree there’s a new feeling of freedom. It’s a time for trying new things and taking on new projects.
At worst, though, the end of work could leave a void.
Retirement can threaten to become, especially perhaps for retirees who are less mobile, a time time of boredom, ossification and isolation.
Either way, learning a new language in retirement could be a great choice. It offers you not just a great mental work-out but also a fulfilling journey of social and cultural discovery.
With all this to play for, does it even matter if you’ll never perhaps reach the heights you would have done if you’d got the language bug when you were 18?
Have you recently retired? Have you been thinking about learning a new language in retirement or are you already underway with one? How’s it going? If you’ve been learning language for years, how has the experience changes in the stages of life? Let me know in the comments below or drop me an email (address under the “about” tab) with your thoughts and questions.