I had an uncle, Uncle Reid, whose hobby was learning languages. Even into advanced old age, he was forever dipping into books like Teach Yourself Urdu or Tagalog without Tears. I have no way of knowing, now, what his level of proficiency was like in these languages. I suspect that, at best, he had a passing familiarity with the rudiments of the grammar of each one, plus a basic vocabulary. Perhaps he could read simplified texts, but I doubt he could sustain a conversation over any length of time.
Nevertheless, the fact that his age was no deterrent should serve to encourage me, and allay my doubts that I might have left this present endeavor too late. As motivated as I am, ‘at my back I always hear/Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near’. Do I seriously believe I can reconfigure my Spanish, aged 63? Is there any evidence to suggest that I can?
Consult any book on SLA and you’ll find a lot of page space dedicated to the effects of age (or ‘maturational constraints’) on language acquisition. Questions discussed include: Is there an optimal age for learning a SL? What is the effect of different ‘ages of onset’? Are different learning processes implicated at different ages? Is native-like proficiency achievable after a certain age? And so on.
But look closely and you’ll find that all the research cited compares children with adolescents, or adolescents with young adults. None of the research looks at mature learners, or attempts to address the question: Do maturational constraints increase with age? Or even, Is there an age of onset beyond which second language learning is not predicted?
On the other hand, if you google ‘am I too old to learn a language?’ you’ll find a host of happy-clappy blog posts, webzine articles etc, that – on the basis of only anecdotal evidence at best – are hugely encouraging about the ease of learning French in your retirement, or Spanish at 50. Language schools, too, offer ‘courses for mature students’, on the principle, presumably, that mature students prefer to study together, undistracted by frivolous teenagers, or – more worryingly – that mature students, due to their cognitive impairments, need special attention.
On the subject of older learners and second language acquisition, I managed to turn up only one serious study (Schulz and Elliot 2000). As the researchers point out, most studies of (old) age and SLA focus on language attrition, that is, language loss in multilingual subjects, but not on the acquisition of new languages by older learners. In their study, Schulz and Elliot report on how one of the pair (Renate Schulz, a 57-year-old professor of German) learnt Spanish during a five-month academic fellowship in Colombia.
Prefacing this account with a review of the literature on ‘cognitive aging’, they note that older adults ‘may not be able to retain information in short-term memory as well as they did before, or to process information as quickly…. They may have more difficulties in retrieving language-related information’ (2000: 109). This typically manifests itself as what is called the ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ (TOT) phenomenon, whereby a word is temporarily inaccessible. ‘When older learners have a TOT experience, they tend to have fewer persistent alternates, that is, they recall fewer alternate words that resemble, in some fashion, the word they wish to retrieve’ (ibid.). This seems to be less due to a failure of memory than to a decrease in processing speed. ‘In summary, the research to date has shown that an older adult requires more time for many cognitive tasks and experiences more word-finding difficulties’ (ibid.)
Schulz’s own diary entries during her spell in Colombia often report some of these difficulties, such as a frustration at her inability to recall verb endings, or the problems of decoding rapid speech. For example (p. 112):
(May 30) I get the general gist of the message, and only later (sometimes after an interaction with someone is completed and I’m doing something else) I suddenly fully understand what has been said in the previous encounter.
Sometimes I perceive myself as if I comprehend and react in slow motion!
Nevertheless, she also experienced some breakthrough moments:
(April 5) Yesterday I addressed the entire department in Spanish for several minutes before I suffered a “linguistic breakdown” and had to revert to English. Later I participated in the discussions in Spanish as well. Amazing what adrenalin can do!
(June 6) I went to see a play with C. J. I was very pleased how much I understood. I had no problem following the general plot, but did not always get the humour that caused audience to laugh.
In fact, on various objective measures of her vocabulary and grammar, both before and after the experience, she demonstrated significant improvement over the five months, suggesting that, if there were any cognitive disadvantages associated with a being ‘a mature learner’, she was able to overcome them. This is good news for me!
Finally, and with regard to the pedagogical implications of their study, the researchers suggest that older learners may be less tolerant of classroom activities that are perceived as frivolous or time-wasting. The following comment (p. 117) chimes precisely with my own classroom experience although I’m not sure that this is necessarily an age-related issue:
Interestingly, Schulz, who in her own teaching and teacher development efforts emphasises the tenets of communicative approaches to foreign language teaching, reacted in her diary occasionally with frustration to role-play and other simulation activities. Group activities which consist of “working on inconsequential, semi-defined tasks with people who are less competent than I am” (diary entry from mid-February) also raised her ire, and in several diary entries she expressed a desire for more challenging and engaging contents.
Perhaps this proves merely that teachers make demanding learners!
Schulz, R.A., & Elliot, P. (2000) ‘Learning Spanish as an older adult,’ Hispania, 83/1, 107-119.