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Am I Too Old To Learn Spanish?

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Question: I am a 56-year-old guy that is dedicated to learning Spanish. I started 7 months ago using the Barrons FSI course and am on lesson 14. My question is: Because of my age, is it tougher to pick up a new language? I have a real tough time picking up the words when spoken in real time (even when I am following along and know what the tape is saying). Any ideas? Or am I being too tough on myself?

Answer from Royhilema1:  Someone has said that the maximum optimum age range for easily learning a foreign language is 12 to 14.  I started studying Spanish was I was 14 and went on to take some college courses, mostly in literature.  By the time I got to my junior year in college, I knew a lot about the language and literature but still had problems speaking and understanding it when spoken.  Fortunately, I met two Latinos who were not there to study English, and because of other common interests we became friends.  In a month or so I was understanding practically everything and speaking with facility, although not without errors.

I am now retired and somewhat older than you and spend most of my time studying one thing or another, including piano and French.  I admit another language doesn't come quite so easily at my age, but it comes.

I recommend you just plunge ahead as long as your interest will sustain you.  Find some good books in Spanish and have a go at them.  Read Spanish newspapers, watch Spanish TV, and if you have the time, take a Berlitz or similar course a couple nights a week.  Of course, if you can find a Spanish-speaking friend, all the better.  And don’t worry about your age.

Answer from Juliette86: Tougher? Definitely. I think it is tougher to learn anything new after 40. Impossible? No way. You might want to consider vacationing someplace where Spanish is the main language spoken. It is really gratifying to realize how much you do understand when you have to.

When you are by yourself, studying, it is easy to only notice what you are not getting, but when your big outing for the morning consists of locating and purchasing some ordinary household item, say a thermometer or insoles, nothing feels as good as being able to make it happen because you can speak "a little" Spanish.  Good luck!

Answer from Edluciano: Do not let your age stop you from learning a new language. I have seen people much older than you learn to speak very good French, and let me tell you French is no piece of cake.

I think the whole optimal age learning thing is academic but not really useful. I learned both Italian and French way after 14. I am not perfect, but I can tell you I get along very well in both these languages. I speak French better  and learned it faster than Italian even though I was in my 20s when I learned it.

What really counts is your will to learn and your dedication. When I was in my "optimum" time for learning a new language I was busy chasing girls, watching TV and hanging out in the mall. It was only until I got older that I valued the idea of learning a new language and actually put the effort into doing it.

I would dare to say, that it may actually be easier for you to learn Spanish now than in many other times of your life.

Answer from Williamg471: The conventional wisdom is that it's harder to learn a language after puberty; but I just took a short course that was the first in a series toward a TESL certificate in which this idea was debunked, except possibly for accent.  I strongly suspect that motivation is the biggest factor.

As to your specific problem, I think it may be the "Mairzy Doats" effect.  I've read several places that it is not knowing where the word boundaries are that makes foreign speech seem rapid.  I think it gets easier as you progress.  You'll acquire vocabulary, which will make it evident in the majority of cases where one word ends and another begins; and you'll acquire a sort of intuitive sense as to what sounds could or could not be word-initial or word-final.

Answer of Alruns: I think almost everyone would agree that it's more difficult to learn a language in your 50s as opposed to your teens, although your motivation may result in your ability ultimately to learn more quickly than a student who is 20 years old but not as serious about the effort.

I started studying about two years ago when I was 54 because my first-grade son decided on his own to enter a partial Spanish immersion program  (half of each school day from grades one to six are taught in Spanish).  It's frustrating sometimes when I listen to a word many times and can’t seem to master it.  I never thought that I had a particular facility for foreign languages, but it's definitely tougher now in my mid 50s.

That being said, I have loved studying and feel slow though it may be, I am making very steady progress.    I try to meet at least twice a week with a teacher with whom I just chat.  I find Spanish newspapers and periodicals are relatively easy to understand and I now subscribe to both People en Español and Newsweek en Español

I probably know only 40 percent of the words, yet I feel that with such easy and familiar reading material I am able to understand about 80 percent of main ideas of what I read while at the same time improving my vocabulary.  I also listen regularly to Spanish radio, but really understand very little of what I hear.  Nevertheless, I think the constant exposure to the language is slowly moving me in the direct of fluency.  Buena suerte.

Note: This question and answer were adapted from a discussion on the bulletin board. To read the original discussion, go here.

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