It has been said that to be fluent in a second language, one should start learning by the age of 10. What do you think? To us here at Coffee Break Languages this presents 2 questions: How do you define “fluent”? And, is all learning started after this age pointless? Clearly, the answer to the 2nd question is no. And we reckon the perception of fluency is subjective. For some, it may be considered the ability to translate everything as you hear it and produce language in any situation, seemingly with little effort. For others, it may be understanding the signs they see around them when visiting a foreign city and successfully ordering food and drinks when enjoying time abroad. Let’s have a look and see if there’s an age and stage of life that’s better than another for learning a language.
The Early Years
There is no doubt it’s a great opportunity to start learning a language as early as possible. In theory we have more time to absorb more information the sooner we start. We know that young children are like sponges, soaking up new information and crucially, retaining it readily. However, some concepts of foreign languages may be trickier to explain and for them to understand. Though it could be argued, those who are brought up bilingually can be immersed in another language and almost do not question rules and points of grammar – they just acquire language as they do with a first language. So, is there hope for us if we’ve left it until after the teenage years?
As we get older, our reasons for learning a language may be different. As a child at school, a language might have been a compulsory subject at school. Later on we may choose to study in a particular field. Having another language at your disposal may open more doors to travel to study in other countries. Motivation for language learning can change greatly at this age and stage of life. Often students relish the opportunity to travel, experience different places and discover other cultures. Another language can make this a whole lot easier. Some say being immersed in the language can facilitate learning.
Getting to know other people in different places can be a huge impetus for wanting to improve language skills. Here at Coffee Break Languages we love hearing learners’ reasons for taking on the challenge of a new language. And often the reason is love! It can be a huge motivation when there’s an emotional involvement, not to mention the opportunity to practise what you’re learning while being encouraged and knowing your efforts will be appreciated.
One CoffeeBreaker, Amanda, told us how she decided to start learning Italian for a partner. However, even when that relationship ended, she continued studying. She had fallen in love with the language, culture and her friends at Coffee Break Italian.
After student life
You may now have graduated and have started out in a job. Life is good, you’re earning money and might be able to afford holidays now and again. You can get more out of your travels if you can speak a little of the language wherever you are. Or are you getting the chance to travel in your new post? Imagine how useful it would be in your line of work to be able to converse with clients in their own language? It’s been shown that having another language in your toolkit can help you advance more quickly in the workplace compared to those who don’t.
This was the case for another CoffeeBreaker, Daniel, who told us that in his current job he communicates with people from all over the world: “being able to communicate with all of them and speak these languages was what got me the job”.
After student life you’ve also grown up a bit, haven’t you? More of life has happened to you and all those experiences add not only to the richness of life, but also to the richness of language you acquire in your native tongue as well in any other languages you may learning.
You may have children of your own now who are starting out on their lifelong learning journeys. Isn’t it great to learn with them?
Are you fluent yet?
Nobody likes to be called middle-aged, so we just avoided that subtitle for this section! Have you reached a point in life where you may want to devote more time to interests? Maybe you have more resources and time to travel, not just for work? Are you panicking that for the last 20 years you “always meant to learn Italian but were busy working, raising a family, helping parents, just getting on with life…?” DO NOT PANIC! It doesn’t matter one bit if this is the first time you’ve looked at and listened to an Italian (please change to your language of choice) lesson since school. You now have the chance to progress in a language at your own pace, in your own time and for your own reasons. So what if it’s “just for fun”, and so that you can order your favourite wine with confidence while sitting at a pavement café in Tuscany, watching the sun go down? Then you’ll be fluent in what you want to be able to say and that’s what is important to you. Learning a language is fun! If you get the building blocks of a language in place, then you can construct anything you need to in time.
Am I too late to start?
No! It’s always the right age to learn a language! Our reasons for doing so may change over the years, but it’s still always a great thing to do. It’s a bit like eating more vegetables, taking more exercise, saving more money, except it’s an awful lot easier to do than those things and can be done at the same time in many cases! We know that making the effort to do things that are good for us always pays off in the long term. Getting up early to go to the exercise class might not always be appealing on a dark winter’s morning, but you see friends when you’re there, feel better for having stretched and got your heart rate up, and you know that getting all those endorphins and oxygen flowing round do you good. Learning a language is just like that. It’s all about communication, talking to people, making connections, maintaining them and having fun. It’s great when you’re in a class, up a mountain with a spectacular view, or in your local French café and you try out your first phrase on a sympathetic native speaker and you’re understood and they reply in French.
There’s your endorphin rush! You understand the response and you’ve had your first conversation in French. Coffee Break Spanish and Chinese learner Fabrice told us about one memorable language experience: “When I went to San Diego to get my Chinese visa, the guy was not even looking at me and then, I don’t remember what I said but it was a very small sentence in Chinese, and his face suddenly lit up and he said ‘Oh you know a little bit of Chinese?’ and I said ‘I’m learning, I want to visit your country! He was very impressed. Speaking another language really does make a big difference for people”. Do you have colleagues who you’d like to speak to in their native language? Or a son or daughter-in-law who has a different first language to you? Do you have grandchildren who live in another part of the world and you’d like speak to them in the language they use where they are growing up? Or is learning a language just something you’d like to do? Does it matter that’s it’s taken 20, 40 or 60 years to become “fluent”? Pas du tout !
So, what do you think about age and language learning? Do you feel you have to be a particular age in order to benefit from language skills? Why not comment below and let us know what you think!