How Getting Older (and Wiser) Improved My Language Learning Skills
“I’d love to learn a new language, but I’m just terrible at it. Plus, the best time to learn a language is when you’re young.”
People say this to me a lot.
I can relate. When I decided to quit my job and take a sabbatical year, in part to regain my fluency in Spanish, I worried that I was too old.
I was 34, which isn’t that old, yet like many people, I’d read that the best time to learn a second language is in childhood and that after puberty (or even earlier) our language acquisition skills begin tapering off.
If that was true, I’d already been in decline for at least 20 years.
That was discouraging, because I’d had such a strong start with Spanish. At 16, I lived in Chile for a year as an exchange student and returned home fluent.
I really enjoyed speaking Spanish, yet when I got back to the U.S., I didn’t keep it up. I did take one Spanish class at college – but I stopped because I didn’t like studying languages in a classroom.
Neglected, my Spanish skills started to erode.
Then I started feeling embarrassed by how much Spanish I’d lost. This compounded my reluctance to use the language. I lost even more.
By the time I was 34 and contemplating the design of my sabbatical year, I decided it was time to rectify this situation. I planned to travel several months in Mexico. Then I’d continue to South America where I’d visit my Chilean host family and friends.
That’s when my intention to learn Spanish took a magical twist…
Setting Out to Learn a Language Changed the Entire Course of My Life
A month before I was to due head to Mexico, a friend emailed with an invitation. She was taking an intensive French course in Provence and had rented an apartment there. It’s a crazy idea, she said, but why not come over to hang out with me? Your lodging will be free!
Europe wasn’t in my budget but the invitation sounded appealing. Plus, I could continue on alone to Spain and practice my Spanish there.
It would be my first time speaking Spanish with Spaniards. I felt excited, but also a little intimidated!
I arrived in Barcelona a month later, completely ignorant that it was the capital of Catalunya. Catalan, not Spanish, was the native language.
Then I met and fell in love with a Catalan farmer
When I moved to Catalunya to be with him a year later, my Spanish had improved immensely and it didn’t even matter. Now I needed to learn Catalan, a Romance language as distinct from Spanish as Portuguese or Italian.
I’m maybe only slightly above average when it comes to learning languages. I never expected in my life to pick up a third language.
Here’s what I found: When you open yourself up to one language, the whole world starts to open up to you.
People regularly argue with me that I must be gifted at languages, but believe me, I’m not. After plenty of classes and traveling widely, I’ve met many others who are far more exceptional at languages than I am.
Not All of Us Can Be like “Snorkel Boat Antons”… And That’s Okay!
Antons is a Latvian guy in his mid-70s. I met him on a snorkel boat tour in Thailand.
Though traveling alone, Antons was always the life of the party, in his yellow bikini bottoms and his ability to chat up everyone onboard in their native tongue. I overheard him switching between at least five different languages and had the pleasure of chatting with him as well.
One morning, as I waited behind him in line to use the toaster at breakfast, he turned to me, holding up a limp square of white bread with complete disdain. “We have your country to blame for this,” he grumbled.
Yes, Antons’ fluency was impressive.
There’s a reason why people like Antons stand out: They’re unusual. I don’t think we need to get stuck comparing ourselves to them.
That said, we can learn from people like Antons.
For those of us who are average language learners at any age, we just need to become more resourceful with what we do have.
Can You Be Better at Languages in Your 30’s than in Your Teens?
I’m a better language learner at 37 than I ever was at 16. Maybe the scientists say that my brain and memory were quicker at 16, and therefore better at language acquisition. Yet I think that’s less important than what I’ve learned through experience about how to learn a language.
In my travels, I’ve observed that exceptional language learners like Antons all share three traits:
- They enjoy languages. Learning is not a chore, it’s a joy. It’s a puzzle to figure out, and they like puzzles. It’s that simple.
- They dive in. They’re not self-conscious. They start stringing together a few words immediately. They don’t mind being corrected on pronunciation or filling in with pantomimes when needed.
- Their enthusiasm smooths over any rough patches. These are individuals who are truly motivated to connect with other people. The whole point of speaking a language is to be sociable, find out something new, have a laugh, and exchange ideas.
I didn’t realize these things when I was 16.
Frankly, when I arrived in Chile as a teenager, a lot of the things I’d “learned” in school about Spanish got in the way of me speaking Spanish.
After 4 Years of Spanish Classes, This is All I Could Do
After four years of studying Spanish in school, I thought I’d be able to speak something to my Chilean host family when I got off the plane. Instead, I could muster no more than “hola”, “bien” and “gracias.” I was completely lost by the totally foreign accent and vocabulary of Chilean Spanish.
Working for all those for those A’s in Spanish class suddenly didn’t amount to much.
My first months in Chile, I was quiet at home and at school. I did my best, but I didn’t like appearing silly for not speaking correctly. It took me a long time to make friends because I was so quiet.
I didn’t know that to fluently learn a language you need to be fluent at making mistakes. This went totally counter to what I’d learned from an education system where my errors always counted against me.
So it was only slowly, and carefully, that I gradually learned and began to master Spanish.
Making a New Friend Was the Start of a Change
Six months into my exchange I made my first close friend, Daniela. At last I had real motivation to communicate in Spanish and started making real progress. We talked late into the night on sleepovers and she made me translate her favorite U2 songs.
I started dreaming in Spanish, which people said was the real mark of fluency.
Then, just as I was getting started, it was time to head home. I had been so slowed by self-consciousness that year.
What was Different at Age 34?
As I started to tackle Spanish again at age 34, I was happy to see that a lot of my teenage self-consciousness had naturally subsided. I was a lot more outgoing and chatty with strangers. I dared to make jokes and didn’t worry so much about mistakes.
Now I cared more about communication than perfection.
I’d amassed a certain amount of wisdom about what worked best for me when it came to learning. I knew I didn’t like learning a language in a classroom. I got bored by worksheets and practicing with other novices.
I’d also seen that the fastest way to learn a language was in total immersion, where you had a real stake in the game. If I needed a language to get through everyday life and make friends, I was going to learn it. Immersion was also the most fun, because it meant I got to travel, learn about a different culture, and meet new people.
Being in Chile as a teenager had also shown me that some book-learning could really speed up the learning process. A basics class combined with immersion led to the absolute best results.
With These Principles in Mind, I Started Learning Catalan
I took about six months of Catalan classes, which gave me the basic vocabulary and verb conjugations.
Yet the real motivation for learning was a year of regular Tuesday night dinners with our Catalan friends, where 75 percent of the conversation was in Catalan (the rest of the time they switched to Spanish just for me).
Many nights, staying mentally engaged in the task of following rapid-fire Catalan was exhausting (and it still is sometimes) but I knew from my teenage years that it does no good to stay quiet and feel sorry that you’re left out.
At Some Point, You’ve Just Got to Dive In
At the tail-end of my sabbatical year in 2014, I made it back to Chile.
By this point in my travels, I’d regained a lot of my Spanish. I felt whole again, after living for so many years with the regret of losing this ability.
I managed to track down Daniela after years of being out of touch. It was a joyful reunion, and we spent lots of time catching up and reminiscing about old times.
One day, I summoned the courage to ask her about how my Spanish sounded. I remember leaving Chile fluent; in my final months there I even wrote in my journal in Spanish because it came more quickly than English. I knew I wasn’t all the way there, but I thought I was closer.
“You speak very well now, but with more mistakes than you used to have,” she said honestly. “Before you spoke perfectly.”
I was crestfallen, though I had suspected as much.
After a time, I got over my disappointment, realizing that now it didn’t really matter to me how perfect my Spanish was. The most important thing was that I didn’t feel that weight of regret about my Spanish anymore. I had it back.
Later, I also wondered how true our memories were of my teenage Spanish fluency.
In day-to-day life now in Spain, I find myself lamenting the stock market with friends or reviewing tax forms with my accountant. For certain, my Daniela and I never discussed complicated topics like these when we were 16 years old. We talked about boys, our families, the teachers we didn’t like. I must have picked up my more complex adult vocabulary from somewhere since then.
I still get frustrated by my limitations in Spanish and Catalan, but mostly I’m proud of myself as I flounder along. My happiness now doesn’t come from a sense of mastery or perfection, but from the inner knowledge of how far I’ve come.
Learning a Language isn’t About Mastery or Perfection, but Knowing How Far You’ve Come
I remember how isolating it felt to be silent at parties and gatherings because I wasn’t sure how to express my thoughts without sounding stupid.
Now I surprise myself by sometimes shouting out, in totally broken Catalan, during our rowdy Tuesday dinner conversations. Sometimes our friends get me and laugh or retort back, and sometimes they don’t and I have to try again, or my husband quickly clarifies what I’ve said. (He’s better at anybody at understanding my weird language compilations.).
I’m happy because I know this is learning. It’s connection.
And I never want to stop.
You’re never too old to learn something new.