This year, as I travel through South America, I am finding my limits. A one mile swim followed by a 5 mile hike takes all that I have and I am rendered exhausted beyond words. (It didn’t help that after the 5 miles, we arrived back home to find the power out and a 5-floor stair climb awaiting.) My recovery time is much longer, as well. It is frustrating.
My language learning skills are equally challenging. I admit to never having been good at second language learning, but I have been studying Spanish online now for over a year, and tested at intermediate level when I started my course at Cuenca University this winter/summer here in Ecuador. Being a “false-intermediate” (I haven’t every taken a course, so my intermediate skills are spotty, with big holes) I was probably overly confident. My class has been a huge challenge, and has been getting increasingly discouraging. My false confidence was probably encouraged by the kindness of Ecuadorians, who are very pleased when anyone tries to learn their language, but there I sit in the classroom feeling that my brain is impermeable brick. Sometimes I have to fight back tears of frustration and embarrassment. I am starting to appreciate better why so many immigrants to Ecuador, and Mexico as well, fail to learn the language.
Those immigrants most often are “mature” adults of retirement age. I suspect many of them have not been in an education environment for 40-50 years, so learning is even more of a challenge. At least I have been an educator for my career. We older people get the message from society too much that we are past our prime. This message is reinforced by our experiences with our bodies and minds. In an episode of Frankie and Grace, Frankie has a hard time passing her driving test. She has let her license expire because she was afraid of failing the physical part of the test-vision. But what turns out to be the obstacle is memory and the written test. As her doubts deepen, her sons get worried about her mental capacity.
But Frankie is wiser, of course. She remembers learning in university that the human brain responds to similarity of conditions when trying to recollect information. Since she usually studies with a bong-full, she replicates the conditions and goes and takes the written test while high, and passes with no problem. Yes, her memory was slipping a bit, but she had strategies for overcoming the problem. She had many years of learning and experience.
I recalled this episode (my memory is not that bad) while I was struggling with my Spanish class. I’m only encouraged when I see my fellow student, who is young and Japanese, struggle with cognates (cognates are words in two languages that share a similar meaning or spelling). Though her brain is young, fresh and retentive, it lacks the ability to connect new words to words from her native language. For me, some Spanish vocabulary is a small step from my existing English vocabulary, and Spanish is not such a “foreign” language to Americans, especially those of us who have lived in communities in the US that have a large number of Spanish speakers. This is an advantage of both culture and age, and it is an advantage I have.
According to the article in the Guardian, “Am I too old to learn a new language?,”Picking up a new language’s vocabulary is much easier for adults than learning the rules that govern its grammar or syntax. This is because new words can be easily mapped on to a learner’s pre-existing knowledge.” I think we also have more mature social skills, and can understand speakers of other languages better because we can read the environment and body language better. This is a real advantage for me, as I have spent the last 14 years living in non-English speaking countries.
But how can I learn Spanish when I get frustrated and demoralized? In English language teaching most instructors rely on the “communitative approach:”
The communicative approach is based on the idea that learning language successfully comes through having to communicate real meaning. When learners are involved in real communication, their natural strategies for language acquisition will be used, and this will allow them to learn to use the language.(source)
This approach emphasizes the use of the language being learned in real life situations, and “success” is measured by the ability to communicate. Prior to taking my current class, I was gaining confidence in my Spanish. I was increasingly able to communicate effectively in my dealings with a monolingual Spanish environment. This successful communication increased my confidence, and thus my courage to continue, and, hence, my learning. Despite the kindness of my teacher, I feel my confidence and skills have actually deteriorated. We have been studying, from a book, grammar. The emphasis has been on verb conjugations and especially irregular verbs. Irregular verbs are highly unlikely to have English language cognates. They seem to hit the side of my brain like bugs on the windscreen. Dead on arrival.
Yes, we can learn a new language in our 60’s and beyond. It takes patience, and the right approach. If you are looking for a language school, pay careful attention to their methodology. An emphasis on rote learning and grammar is clearly not the best way for us to learn languages. We need to be able to build on our strengths and develop confidence by way of successful communication.
An important added benefit to language learning is that we also are strengthening our brains in the process:
Learning a new language may not always be easy for adults, but there is research to suggest that doing so is beneficial for brain health. As we get older, most of us experience an age-related decline in mental functions such as attention and memory, and in some people the acceleration of this process leads to the development of Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. A number of recent studies suggest that learning a foreign language can slow this inevitable age-related cognitive decline or perhaps even delay the onset of dementia. (source)
Just as we need to actually increase our physical exercise as we age, so it is the case for mental calisthenics, “”Learning a language later on in life might be more beneficial than learning it earlier, because it takes more effort,” Bak continues. “It has parallels with physical exercise – a stroll is good for your health, but not as beneficial as a run.””(source)
Next month I’m going to Machu Picchu with a couple of friends who are 10 years younger than I. They will climb the mountain. I will be very grateful to be able to hike the site and climb the stairs, and communicate with the patient guides in Spanish.