Monday, February 23, 2015
Learning Another Language at 50
Language is not the only strand in the webs but it is an important one. It's the one that helps you make sense of all the others.
I started learning French (my second language) in the US through language classes in high school and at university. I was young, eager to learn, and highly motivated. Not that there weren't moments when I despaired because of my accent - something I have never managed to lose- or because new situations forced me to learn and stretch and that was not always comfortable. Like, for example, giving a speech in French to 200 people in a huge auditorium with a faulty microphone. (Believe me, that was so not my day and the fact that I remember it so vividly is a good indication of how traumatized I was.)
30 years later the situation is not the same. What brought me to Japan is not what brought me to France decades ago. I am motivated and eager to learn Japanese but there is less urgency because I don't have a job to worry about, nor do I have obligations (like a mother-in-law) that would make learning the language quickly a priority. But what I see as the most important difference is that I'm simply not the same person I was back then.
The common wisdom is that learning languages becomes more difficult as one gets older. Is it true? Kenji Hakuta has done a lot of research into the topic of older language learners and from what I recall from his books, the picture is not nearly as bleak as one might think.
Before I go back and dig up the books (and some articles I read long ago) here are a few things I've noticed since I started formally learning Japanese last week with the help of a tutor.
Successful Language Acquisition in the Past Bodes Well for the Future: Every time I feel overwhelmed I can remind myself that I was successful at learning a first and then a second language.
"But the first one doesn't count!" you say. I don't agree. We don't realize how amazing it is that we learn language at all. We are hardwired to do it and that's true whether you are 5 days or 50 years old. Furthermore, we never stop learning language - even our first language. Think about this: when you were fifteen, you were surely able to use your first language better than when you were five years old, right? In ten years you improved which means that you kept learning. Ditto for when you were 20, 30, 40 years old.
So learning a language is a lifetime endeavour and we never stop learning even if we only concentrate on one language, the very first one.
I learned my second language well past the "critical period." I was in my late teens when I started French and well into my twenties when I started speaking it on a regular basis. But I learned - sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly and I'm still learning. I realized the other day that I have spent more years as a francophone than the French children I see in elementary, middle and high school have been alive.
So if we all learn a first language, and many of us learn a second language, clearly we can learn, if we wish, a third language.
Where Age Might Matter: Accent. I still have an American accent in French and I'm aware that this holds true for Japanese as well. Though Japanese is a bit easier than French in this respect since the sounds in Japanese more or less map to ones in English.
Also anything that requires brute memorization is hard for me. I'm learning the hiragana with flash cards and I'm still struggling.
But this is not just true of language, it's been true for many things. I just don't have the ability to memorize things quickly these days and I find myself always having to write things down on post-its. This could be age, a lingering effect of the chemo, the medications I'm taking now, stress or a combination of all these things.
Experience, Self-Awareness and Maturity Are Your Allies: At 50 I have a few things going for me that I didn't have when I was younger. For one thing, with age comes power. A two-year old learning a language can't say to mom (or dad), "You know, I could learn a lot faster if you two could stop mumbling and speak a little more slowly." A young immigrant who just started a new job is not necessarily in a place where he she feels comfortable asking native speakers to slow the conversation down or repeat themselves in a meeting.
At this point in my life I have no qualms about saying (and making it stick): "I don't understand," "One more time, please," and "Could you speak more slowly?" My self-worth is not contingent on other people's opinion of my language progress. Also, I don't have a boss or a parent or a school teacher standing over me with a whip forcing me to submit to the tyranny of their expectations.
Experience learning languages has given me some idea about what works for me and so my Japanese tutor and I put together a lesson format that uses those things that feel natural and easy. I learn best in blocks - so we work with whole sentences and scripts and not so much with grammar. Between my self-knowledge and her experience teaching Japanese professionally to foreigners, we are on the same page and are mutually satisfied with our first week of lessons.
Are there any other third (or fourth) language learners out there? If so, does any of the above resonate with you?