Are you ever too old to learn English?

At The London School of English in Canterbury as well as in London we specialise in teaching participants over the age of 30 and we have a lot of clients who are in their 40s and 50s if not older. This means it is quite common for us to hear comments such as “It’s more difficult because I’m older” or “I am too old to learn English”. However, this is not actually true.

It has been scientifically proven that you’re never too old to learn a language or pick up any other new skill for that matter. Your body might not have the same agility or flexibility, to do sport for example, but your brain can definitely be stretched and challenged to create new neurological connections which can make you an effective learner.

Learning a language means linking your pre-existing knowledge of the world to the new input that you receive. Specifically for this reason, adults can be better (or at least more efficient) learners than children: your many years of schooling and life experience make you receptive and allow you to better understand the intricacies of a language as well as the strategies to apply when analysing and memorising new concepts.

Why do older students think that age is so crucial to their ability to learn English?

There are three common factors that students often confuse with age: risk taking, time and repetition.

We improve by trying to communicate and be understood, and this means taking risks and making mistakes. Adult learners are typically less happy to do this than younger students, so it is easy to think age is the barrier to the learning process and use it as a reason to justify not taking risks.

Typically, adults also underestimate how much time it can take children to learn. We imagine young people as sponges that absorb everything very quickly, and this can be true in some circumstances, but we should also remember how many years of school it can take children to, for example, learn their multiplication tables in maths. Compared to children, adults usually have less time to spend on learning a language as they also have to focus on many aspects of life and not only on their studies.

Moreover, children often find that repetition is comforting and it reassures them of what they’re producing whereas adults can find this process quite boring or frustrating, which means they are less likely to repeat new language in the same way. However, repetition of expressions in meaningful encounters (seeing, hearing or using the word in a memorable situation) is key to learning. Research suggests this needs to be done at least seven times before we can say we can actually ‘know’ the new word or sentence.

Knowing language and being a good speaker

Now is also a good moment to consider what it means to be a good language user. Often students have a very narrow definition, for example not to make grammar mistakes or to know a lot of vocabulary. While these can be important, most of the time what we need is to be effective communicators and that means knowing how to build relationships, express yourself and interact. Essentially, social and intercultural skills can be as important language knowledge, which is why we spend time focusing on these in our English courses. These are also elements that are often easier for more mature people to understand than for children.

And what does ‘knowing’ a word actually mean? It’s not only a matter of recalling it at the right time or being able to use it in the right position in a sentence. For example, it’s also about knowing its

pronunciation, its spelling and what words best go with it (e.g. we say ‘blonde hair’ not ‘yellow hair’). Words can also have different meanings (e.g. ‘bank’ as a financial institution and the side of a river) or variations depending on if it’s a noun (singular or plural, with or without article), adjective or verb – think photograph, photographer, photography, photographic etc. There are also other considerations, for example if there are words with similar or opposite meanings, if there are differences in register (formal or informal, polite or not) or if there are other words that have the same sound but a different spelling (e.g. hair vs hare).

All of these elements require you to make links and connections in your brain, which can become a conscious activity for mature adults. As a consequence, we spend a lot of time on our courses helping you, as a client, to become a more effective and aware learner so that you become better at making those connections.

Tips on how to make sure you memorise new language

Here are some examples of the types of tips we give to improve those connections:

  •  Choose an item in a room in your home where you spend quite a lot of time (e.g. the fridge in kitchen or the TV in the sitting room). Create some cards with new vocabulary or expressions and stick them on the piece of furniture or device that you have selected. Every time you open the fridge or switch the TV on, read the cards and try to think of a suitable sentence with the new word or expression. Change the cards every week and notice how easy you find it to recall and reuse that language when the time comes.
  • Use an app such as Quizlet, which lets you create your own cards and stores them online ready for you to revise whenever you feel like challenging yourself a little. This can happen anywhere you are provided you have a portable device, such as your mobile phone or an iPad with you. Use these cards to write down not only the word but some of the associations we mention above, for example the pronunciation or its register.
  • Try to consciously notice patterns in rules and sounds as this is a very effective strategy to help you retain new language. For example, if you notice that someone is “good at Maths” or “bad at Maths”, you can conclude that you can probably also say “amazing at Maths” or “terrible at Maths”.
  • Try to link new language to similar words and expressions in English or other languages you know, noticing similarities and differences. This can help create connections that your brain can reuse automatically at times when it is difficult to recall information, for example when you are tired or under pressure.
  • Choose something that you find interesting and do it in English, for example following the results of your favourite sports teams. It will help with your motivation and we know from research that active listening and reading on a regular basis helps your brain meet and store an enormous amount of data in the new language. Although it may not be used straight away, it will be available at a later stage. Sophisticated expressions or colloquial language will come to your mind when you need them and, even if they might not be perfect when you try to produce them the first time, they will be refined by repetition and use.

In conclusion, being more mature can be used as an advantage in your language learning – you just need the right environment and support! We can also help you with our General English 30+ and Business and Professional English 30+ courses. 

Giulia is the Director of Studies atThe London School of English Canterbury. She has been working for us for three years and been a teacher and manager in the sector, both in the UK and abroad, for over 15 years. She specialises in teacher training and pedagogy.

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Find out more about our General English 30+Business and Professional English 30+ and Intercultural competence combination courses that are available both in Canterbury and London. If you'd rather learn online you can book Skype English or Online English courses.

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