Is it too late to learn a language fluently?

does it get harder to learn a language as you get older? Too late photo

I try to live a life without regrets. So far, so good.

In my late teens and early twenties, I acutely remember listening to (then) older people about what they regretted. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was applying Jeff Bezos’ regret minimisation framework, at roughly the same time he was. (Yes, I was applying it to things smaller in scale than deciding whether or not to launch a company that would eventually make him the richest person in the world.)

Older (to me) people regretted:

  • Not saving more money, or wait too long to buy a house, or selling one too early.
  • Starting something and letting it lapse before it gathered momentum, like a website, a social media account or a business.
  • Not learning languages while they were young.

Learning languages does get harder as we get older. I’m nearly 40 at time of writing, and I feel the pain. It gets harder in many ways:

  • It’s harder to concentrate as we get older. It seems like I have a million distractions in my life. Friends, various notifications, news items to worry about, money, health.
  • Life as an adult is full of other important things. I constantly worry I have my priorities wrong. I spend time agonising over my priorities. Even if one of them is “meditate more, so I agonise less.”
  • My brain is getting tired. It’s hard for the older brain to learn new words and phrases. It seems it takes ages for them to sink in.
  • It’s harder to make my body do unusual things. Particularly my tongue and mouth—when I encounter a strange sound, it’s hard to hear it and replicate it. The Korean hard letters (like a double kk sound) is a little alien. The German/Dutch trilled r from the back of the throat bedevils me.

It’s getting hard to the point where one thing that distracts me is how much harder it’s actually getting (vs how much of it is in my head), what a realistic goal should be and how I should work with my new reality—if I should worry about it at all.

What does it mean to be fluent?

Let’s set a definition for “fluent” first, so we have a point of reference.

Young students obsess over language fluency in every situation. They are concerned with passing grades, getting through interviews and perhaps using their language in a professional situation. They try to be ready for anything.

Not me. I’m pretty aware, for example, that I’m never going to discuss advanced medical conditions (beyond a cough or cold) with a professional. Any doctor or dentist I see is going to speak decent English, and health is too important to get wrong. Similarly, if I have a lawyer, I’m not going to discuss contracts with them in German or Chinese. Maybe a real estate agent or landlord, perhaps a cellphone salesman but nothing too advanced.

So what is “fluency”? There are a few formal definitions. Europeans and Americans each have their own scales for what it means to be fluent, which are used to grade people before placement in courses, as well as indicators on places like resumes. The European standard ranges from A1, which is knowing basic expressions and getting by, up to C2, which is understanding virtually everything seen or heard. The American scale is pretty similar, except that it also includes a Level 0, which is where you actually know a few words but can’t really communicate. Harsh reality check!

The standard definitions of fluency are great… in theory. If you want to do a free online fluency test and put it on your LinkedIn profile, go right ahead. But what about real definition of fluency? What level of fluent is it if you just want to go buy a baguette and not waste anyone’s time by asking the cashier to repeat themselves? What if you want to speak to some business contacts and not accidentally use the wrong level of formality? For an extremely practical definition, I once read one CIA officer’s definition of fluency was “being able to understand a faint, disjointed conversation between two native speakers over a crackly phone line”. Awesome (if a little excessive and specific).

Are you too old to learn a language? Baguette, bakery photo
Excusez-moi, what kind of bread is this? Ah, une baguette? And what kind of pastry is this? And this? And this?” (Photo courtesy Adrien Olichon)

The 2×2 Matrix of Fluency

In searching for a practical definition of fluency, I use a table with two dimensions (yes, I DID to work in large corporations; why do you ask?). The first dimension is how native you are, and the second is how professional your language level is.

Dimension 1: Native vs Non-Native: Being ‘native’ means you sound like you’re from a place that speaks that language, or at least your parents do. This would be the case if you grew up speaking the language well, or at least started learning the language when you were very young. It might also happen if you’re extremely good at picking up tones, intonations, expressions and jokes. You can have a strong native level but not know many words, in which case you will say things like “hey can you be a bit quiet? it’s 11pm” really easily, but struggle to say things like “I was born after the revolution when my parents had already emigrated from Iran”. Conversely, if you’re at a non-native level, no matter how advanced your conversation level or professional your emails, you will always have an accent (even if a vague one).

Dimension 2: Professional vs Non-professional : You get to ‘professional’ either by spending your entire life (including university education) in a country where a language is spoken, in which case you’re native too; or by just studying a language for years. As mentioned above, you can be highly professional, but not native. For example, you might be a PhD researcher at MIT and write highly advanced papers, but if you don’t have a native level as well, you might find it hard to make banter in bars (I’ve been there… well, I wasn’t at MIT).

Here you go: Dana’s Awesome Fluency 2×2 Matrix!!!

ProfessionalThe Local: Has a very native-sounding accent, with a regional bias. E.g. Australian English, Parisian French, Egyptian Arabic. Can discuss professional things, like go to a job interview without freaking out, describe an article you read in The Atlantic or listen to podcasts for fun. Can write professional emails and casual set messages.The Fluent Foreigner: Has an accent, from slight to extremely strong, like French with an American accent. Occasionally use weird turns of phrase, or grammatical imperfections.  That said, extremely verbose—excellent grammar, mastery of idioms and can write professional emails that are polite and well-expressed, though would struggle with things like “wtf R u OK” in text messages.
Non-professionalThe Ally: Sounds very native, or at least like you grew up with a language, and have an accent you can ascribe to a region. Can put sentences together fluently, joke around with friends, probably hang out in social situations… but have to throw in foreign words like “washing machine”. Struggles with formal tense or professional tense. Doesn’t really understand all of what’s on the new. If they went to see a lecture they’d need a translation.The Beginner: Just getting started in a language. Has been doing some courses, but don’t really feel comfortable, can’t say all that much, and sound foreign. Need to get to one of the other quadrants ASAP, by either learning more casual language, better pronunciation or how to express oneself more professionally.

(Small note: I’m always surprised when I meet people in “The Fluent Foreigner” category. I call it “Foreigner” because that’s how locals perceive it, unfair as it is. These are, for example, people with extremely foreign English-speaking accents who otherwise totally dominate a foreign language. They know every word, turn of phrase and idiom in a foreign language, and could school you on theoretical grammar; yet because of their unshakeable accent, people say “oh, that person doesn’t speak xyz so well.”)

My suggestion, which I try to follow, is to make your way from Beginner –> Ally –> Local (or aspire to get there, anyway). Don’t get bogged down in grammar, rules and perfectionism, as the Fluent Foreigner does. (Yes, some people really try and never get there with pronunciation. I don’t mean to sound judgmental—I’m the same with some languages and sounds.)

On the other hand, I’ve learned that saying just a few words in a foreign language but with a perfect accent gets you unfairly far. I learned this in Israel. I could blend in on a local minibus (helped partly by the fact that I look like I fit in, in Israel’s fairly heterogenous society) and people were surprised when I didn’t know much more than the few words I had uttered. That’s why I call it The Ally: someone who’s making an effort to be local, not necessarily through textbooks, but by observing, listening and practising.

Functional fluency

As for what level of professionalism we’re looking for: we think of it as ‘functionally fluent’. This means being able to conjure up maybe 1-2,000 words in context and being able to fudge through situations.

I remember once I couldn’t remember the word for “carrot” in a language. I wanted to ask the shopkeeper if he had any. I spoke to him like this:

Me: “Do you have any of that vegetable, that’s like a cucumber, but orange?”
Him: “You mean a carrot?”

Why do children learn languages so easily?

Children appear to soak languages up like sponges. Parents and other adults are constantly delighted and surprised when children naturally begin imitating their elders, picking up their speaking patterns, tones, pronunciation quirks and phrases, sometimes just saying exactly what their parents say.

There are a few specific reasons why children have an advantage over parents.

Firstly, children learn foreign languages easily because they have pressure to communicate. To learn to express what they want, react to their environment children need to be able to talk, and later read and write. Before knowing any languages they can’t say anything and are left out and don’t get their way. The pressure is real!

Secondly, children have fewer distractions in life. Children have very few responsibilities other than learning, staying healthy and making friends. They don’t have the overwhelming pressures of life that adults do, like making money, paying taxes and taking care of children. They don’t even have time limits on learning in the early years. Nobody is telling them they need to be able to express basic needs at an A2 level by the age of 4. It’s totally pressure-free, which helps it occur more naturally. Adults actually learn very well in immersion, but the cost of immersion is much higher for adults.

Thirdly, children’s brains are more malleable. There are various stages in the evolution of a child’s brain, but it’s generally accepted that it’s easiest to pick up a language before puberty. A second cliff happens around the age of eighteen. It was a long-held belief that one could not learn any more past the age of thirty, because by that stage in life all our brain cells had already formed. This has been debunked (as recently as 2002).

Finally, children aren’t bogged down by what they already know. The advantage of being human is that we look for patterns, connections and rules in life. When learning our first language as children, we have no frame of reference. We connect sounds with human actions and reactions; we figure out what to do and say to get fed, toys and sleep. As adults, we’re always looking for patterns, and according to one MIT study, this can bog us down. We try to figure out rules, and then learn those, but then get stuck when there are exceptions to rules. The problem is, many languages are masses of exceptions, so much so that they can seem to be exclusively exceptions. And nobody speaks in rules. We speak in phrases and expressions.

Should we learn like children? Some people advocate even using kids books to learn from.

But remember one important thing: it takes babies 18 months before they even known maybe 20-50 words. It takes children five to eight years before they can string cogent sentences together. We don’t have that much time. You don’t either! And we also know it doesn’t have to take that much time.

So this begs the next question: is language learning easier for adults? Do we have an advantage?

How is learning languages easier for adults?

The brain. It’s our best friend and our worst enemy. This article describing a paper from an MIT research center put it well:

Adults may over-analyze new language rules or sounds and try to make them fit into some understandable and coherent pattern that makes sense to them. But a new language may involve grammar rules that aren’t so easily explained, and adults have more difficulty overcoming those obstacles than children, who simply absorb the rules or exceptions and learn from them.

Time, my emphasis

There are (generally) two schools of thought about how to learn language as adults.

  1. Use our logical cognitive ability to our advantage. Develop systems like flashcards to memorise words. Learn grammar rules and drill them through exercises. Do structured practise, making sentences and giving speeches. This is the approach used by schools and in part by many apps (which, by their nature, would never be used by children).
  2. Ignore the fact that we’re adults and learn like children. Listen to tons of speech and try to replicate it, ignoring the fact that we mostly can’t. Try to learn through context, not saying anything unless it’s in that language. Learn phrases and rarely singular words. Focus on expression rather than rules. In fact, consider never even learning rules.

Which is the ‘right’ way? A cop-out answer would be to say that both are right, and we have to use them both in harmony. Or that some work for some people, while some work for others.

What’s really fun is that right now there are so many theories of learning languages out there, each put forward by a different business or app, and we have a chance to test them all. Fun!!

Theory 1: Mimic people (and stop wasting time on flashcards)

For example, from Glossika I received an email entitled “Stop Wasting Time on Flashcards and Memorizing”. OK, I bit. I hate flashcards.

There’s no memorization involved in language acquisition. If anybody is selling you flashcard methods in 2018, then you need to ask for your money back. It’s ridiculous.

Just step back and think about a few things: How did you…

● learn how to walk and run?

● learn how to talk?

● learn how to dance?

● learn how to swim?

In most of those cases, you didn’t open a book, you didn’t study for a test, you didn’t even go to a class. Sure, there are teachers for some of these things, but you can learn them all by mimicking others.

Hey, and doesn’t the beginning always feel intimidating, scary, frustrating? Sure! But you overcome your fear and you jump in and start doing. No matter how silly you feel at first, when you do it enough times, it’s hard to even remember how you couldn’t do it before. Language shouldn’t be any different. In fact, every human is born with the ability to speak any language.

Email from Glossika. Edited slightly for length.
From the Glossika system. Just listen and repeat. Or as they call it, “Mumbling your way to fluency”.

The rest of the message goes on to say that it will feel like you’re making no progress, but you will be. I’m trying Glossika now (with Korean) and look forward to reporting on how it goes.

Theory 2: Use flashcards

I love the theory. But then you read about spaced repetition, and the problem is: it’s equally convincing. Take a look at the below, from the website of Anki, one of the most popular spaced repetition flashcard programs:

Our brains are efficient machines, and they rapidly discard information that doesn’t seem useful. Chances are that you don’t remember what you had for dinner on Monday two weeks ago, because this information is not usually useful.The brain’s “use it or lose it” policy applies to everything we learn. If you spend an afternoon memorizing some science terms, and then don’t think about that material for two weeks, you’ll probably have forgotten most of it. In fact, studies show we forget about 75% of material learnt within a 48 hour period.The solution is simple, however: review. By reviewing newly-learnt information, we can greatly reduce forgetting.The spacing effect was reported by a German psychologist in 1885. He observed that we tend to remember things more effectively if we spread reviews out over time, instead of studying multiple times in one session.The biggest developments in spaced repetition in the last 30 years have come from the authors of SuperMemo, a commercial flashcard program that implements spaced repetition. SuperMemo pioneered the concept of a system that keeps track of the ideal time to review material and optimizes itself based on the performance of the user.This was a revolution in learning, as it meant material could be learnt and retained with the absolute minimum amount of effort necessary.

Anki (edited for length, plus emphasis added)

Theories 3-infinity: Choose your own learning style

Another way in which learning is easier for adults is that you can choose your own learning style.

Benny Lewis of Fluent In 3 Months is a strong advocate of speaking on day 1. He talked about his method at TEDx Warsaw. It really boils down to this: Don’t be afraid to speak. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Speak from day. 1, and focus on speaking. One of my favourite anecdotes he tells (and one of his, it seems) is how he spent three months in Brazil learning to speak Egyptian Arabic before heading to Egypt by getting on Skype for one to two hours a day. (I don’t know. why. Brazil is expensive, and I bet it was frustrating being drawn between improving his Portuguese and learning a new language in a room.)

On the other hand, Steve Kaufmann, who speaks 16 languages and is the founder of the language learning software app LingQ, is a strong advocate of focusing on listening and reading.

Remember those super interesting textbooks you learned languages from in school? No, neither do I. That’s because most of the content language learners are exposed to, especially early on, is dull as dishwater. It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of learning phrases containing basic vocabulary, we as language learners should be learning from content, even as beginners, that piques our interests and motivates us to learn more.

Is celebrity news your guilty pleasure? Read it in French. Are you a foodie who loves finding new recipes? Discover some in Arabic. Always refreshing your phone to keep up to date with the latest world news? Read about it in Japanese.

From the LingQ website

One thing to note about Steve Kaufmann: he learned Russian when he was 60 years old, and that was just the ninth language he learned… he learned over eight languages past the age of 60.

There’s no right way, so we should measure results

In summary: There’s no right way. Apps, flashcards, speaking, listening, imitating… the most important thing might be to test what works best.

With language learning like many things we’ll do over the next year (fitness, sports, skills), you can find evidence to support anything. So our approach will rest on three foundations:

  1. Do something—anything—and do it carefully
  2. Measure results
  3. Try new things.

In a future post, we’ll set a framework for testing fluency by different study methods. It’ll be a combination of word retention and the ability to remember how to formulate certain sentences. The idea will be that we can try one method for a week and see how effective the results are. Stay tuned!

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