The Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language at an Older Age

A group of seniors laugh while reading a book together in a book club

Bonnes nouvelles.
Buone notizie.
Buenas noticias.

Or in English, good news. Because if you think you’re too old to learn a foreign language, it’s time to think again. Research is showing you’re never too old to start, and doing it can be incredibly beneficial, especially for seniors.

Not just for kids

Many people think that learning new languages ideally happens when we’re children and becomes harder as we age. The root of this notion is due to neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form and restructure synaptic connections. While it’s true that this ability decreases as we age, many experts now believe learning a foreign language at an older age is no harder than when you’re a child.

Professor Catherine Snow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education stated, “The evidence clearly demonstrates that there is no critical period for second-language learning, no biologically determined constraint on language-learning capacity that emerges at a particular age, nor any maturational process which requires that older language learners function differently than younger language learners.”

In fact, older adults have some advantages over children in studying and learning a foreign language. They’re better learners because they already have some effective study habits that make the process easier. They’re armed with larger vocabularies. And they can draw on knowledge and experience to make associations.

Benefits of learning a foreign language

Mastering a new language is like sending your brain to the gym. Your brain needs exercise and the process of learning a foreign language, or even just a new word every day, can structurally and functionally alter the brain. It actually develops new neural pathways, makes new connections, and adds flexibility.

Here’s some motivation to expand your language skills. Scientists, in the largest study yet to study the effects of bilingualism and dementia, have found that people who can speak more than one language tend to develop dementia up to five years later than monolingual people.

While the science is uncertain on exactly why this phenomenon occurs, speaking more than one language is thought to lead to better development of the areas of the brain that handle executive functions and attention tasks, which may help protect from the onset of dementia.

Technology helps

Learning a foreign language at an older age is now even easier with so much useful technology available. The best language learning apps can help you build a vocabulary, develop proper grammar, and eventually become fluent through lessons that are easy to digest and retain. By using your own device to practice a language through features such as voice recognition and interactive multimedia exercises, you’ll likely feel more motivated to learn.

These are a few of the most popular options. Some are free, or have free options, while others require a fee. But you don’t have to be locked into one method. Language learning is all about trial and error. Try one approach and if you don’t like the results, try something else.

Duolingo is one of the most popular language websites. Duolingo starts by teaching you the most basic words. Once you’re familiar with the words, simple sentences follow. You’ll go through lessons with native speakers, followed by quizzes to help you strengthen your learning. The app listens to you speak so that it can determine how you’re progressing. The addition of gaming elements, like learning streaks and in-lesson grading, help keep things interesting.

  • Memrise is a language-learning website designed more for getting started with a language than for fluency. Similar to Duolingo, you learn by playing word games that help you memorize the language with ease. The app also uses short videos to show how native speakers express different phrases in conversation.
  • Rype is an online app based on daily one-on-one lessons between students and professional teachers. Instead of using quizzes or videos, you learn from a personal instructor over a video call. Lessons each last 30 or 60 minutes, and users can choose from over 100 teachers for any of the seven languages. Programs are customizable and can be accessed any time of the day, on any kind of device.
  • Babbel is the most like a foreign language course you’d see in a school curriculum. Each lesson takes you through translations, and includes variations of the word or phrase, pictures,and whether it’s formal or informal.
  • FluentU teaches you languages using videos. The videos aren’t instructional, but rather regular videos featuring the foreign language. For example, you might see a movie clip, a music video, or a just a person talking with subtitles.

Do it together

Learning and practicing a second language in a social setting creates great opportunities for fellowship. Sharing the same goal of learning a foreign language creates a base for all sorts of social activities, as well introducing you to a new culture and cuisine. Groups with seniors working on their language skills together may watch popular soap operas in Spanish, listen to an opera in German, or enjoy a soccer match being announced in Italian.

Meadow Ridge has three language groups – French, Italian and Yiddish. Each is run by residents and are more conversational than instructional. They’re a popular way for residents to socialize and practice speaking and understanding a new language.

Learn more about our community and our activities, including our language groups, by filling out the form below.