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Monday, February 23, 2015

Learning Another Language at 50

I will turn 50 this year and I can assure you that learning a third language was not what I had in mind as I get close to celebrating five decades on this earth.  And yet, I can't imagine living in a country and not being able to communicate with the people around me.  When I walk out the door of my apartment, the webs of significance make little or no sense to me and I find that very frustrating.

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?


Nina Tichman said...

Keep at it! Among other things, it´s one of the two best things you can do for your brain health (tje other being playing a musical Instrument, preferably the piano of course!) I wonder if prioritizing might also help - deciding whether speaking and reading, for example, will get more emphasis than writing (which I understand is really difficult in Japanese) I am about to take another stab at Russian myself, main issue right now is the Keyboard! GOOD LUCK!

Ellen Lebelle said...

Flashcards and memory games. You can have fun on your computeyr: find pictures of things, situations, people and stick them on a page or however many pages it takes (like 18 stickers to a page) which you then print out twice so you have 2 cards for each image. Cut out your cards -- all the same size.
You can play with your tutor:
Memory -- make sure you have 2 cards for each image and place about 20 cards on the table, face down. Flip one at a time and say whatever is relevent to that picture -- what, who it is and anything else about it -- and then flip another and, if it's different, repeat the recitation process; if the same, you've won the pair.
Go fish: with the full deck of "things", shuffle and deal out five cards to each player. 1st to go asks, Do you have a....? Yes, then you have to ask for it and say thank you. No, then go fish. -- of course all this in Japanese
You might want to sort your "things" into categories like clothing, food, places to see, transportation....

Ellen Lebelle said...

Also -- a game, like Monopoly, is good for negotiating (having dealt the property cards out, rather than landing on the properties) asking for prices.

Also for the playing cards -- if you take/use pictures of food you want to buy, places you've been to, it's more relevent. You can also make a game for getting around -- pick a card with the name of a place (station, sightseeing, husband's office...) and give directions how to get there from the last "place". Use a city map, or draw one. The key is to do this with your tutor, so that you are sure to do it in Japanese and she help you get it right.
As a former teacher of English as a foreign language, I'm a great believer in games -- making repitition fun and haphazard, because of the cards. It's not like learning lists -- ugh!

Anonymous said...

Try watching Japanese TV on your tablet. App is called NHK World TV and is in english. There are Japanese language classes, travel shows, world news, arts and crafts and cooking classes (all Japanese food). Give it a whirl. Mike

Anonymous said...

Formal spoken Japanese is quite straightforward. It's "easy" as languages go.

The written language is quite hopeless. You can learn the 2 phonetic written alphabets.


Christophe said...

Hi Victoria,

I like hearing from you and keep following your blog. It is great that you are going through the effort of learning Japanese.
To add to your post, there is learning another language, and learning another language and alphabet, which adds to the difficulty for Japanese. Do you learn mainly phonetics, or do you also go through the extra difficulty of learning how to write/recognize the words you're learning. With these languages, it could possibly be dissociated. Learning just the phonetics for oral understanding could get you started faster. I was just wondering.

Hope it gets easier for you every day.


Blaze said...

I don't have any suggestions for you, but I am fascinated by how you are embracing and sharing this adventure you are on. I hope you will turn it into a book. When it is made into a movie, I see Kristin Scott Thomas cast as Victoria Ferauge.

I would love to have someone like Ellen teach me French!

Bruce B. said...

Totally agree with your take on learning another language as a "mature learner". ;) I didn't start leaning French (my 2nd language) until my very early 40's. I'm fluent now, although it took a few years (and getting married to a French woman certainly helped a lot :D).

As far as my anglophone accent goes, "frankly my dear, I don't give a damn!" It's not a heavy accent, although it's definitely noticeable. And in fact, when I'm working with my university ESL students, and they say they "don't like their French accent", I ask if they notice my accent when I speak in French. The ones who are honest ;) say "yes", and then I tell them that I'm actually proud of my accent. I then ask them "and why aren't you?"

At least, that gets them thinking...

kermitzii said...

Scrabble on the internet. I play it on Facebook and most of my opponents are retirees. They play partly to occupy time, but it is also mentally stimulating if you don't use a word cheater.

LarryC said...

I continue to focus on my 3rd foreign language, French. The other two are Japanese and German. What makes learning a new language late in life is not that I'm approaching 60 - it is the frustration that very few live nearby who speak French beyond "Bonjour".

Commuting into Seattle for professional in-person lessons can be a 90 to 120 minute exercise in zen breathing and bumper-car avoidance. Skype lessons are helpful but the in-person experience is a superior method (for me) to integrate a new language.

During my French immersion lessons, especially last fall, on occasion I would respond in Japanese (or German from high school!). Once in that language, it became difficult (for me) to leave that mode and begin again in French. Dreaming in French (and German and Japanese) reflects the mind's integration of that code/symbol set to communicate.

Japanese was the easiest of the three to learn, and I regret not keeping up to fluency with it.

Because I prefer native French speakers, I'm unable to easily follow the locals who don't practice correct accent and pronounciation. Grammar mistakes are easy to accept - but deliberately poor accent is hardest to overlook.

Inaka Nezumi said...

I guess Japanese could be considered my third language, though it is really the only one other than English that I have ever gained any useful proficiency in. I can more-or-less read French after studying years of it in high school, but cannot speak or write it for beans. I won't even count my dilettantish dabblings in some other languages.

But I did start learning Japanese later in life, so can sympathize with that aspect. One thing you'll have noticed is that Japanese has a lot less grammar than European languages: no plurals, genders or declensions, and the verb tenses are a lot easier to form. But on the flip side, the sentence patterns are very important for learning how to make subtle differences in meaning, so I think your block-learning style will be very effective for that.

Of course the writing system is a lot of work, but brute force and determination go a long way there. Plus, for kanji, the standard trick of breaking it down into its component parts, and making up stories about how they relate together.

One of the hardest things to nail as a non-native may be intonation, which I find hard to hear, and harder to reproduce properly (just ask my wife, who is always scolding me about that). In your case, you also have the issue of whether you want to learn standard (Hyoujun-go) or Osaka-area (Kansai-ben) intonation. Your teacher and surroundings may direct you towards the latter, though note that dictionaries will only show the former.

Fortunately, messing up the intonation doesn't (usually) destroy all meaning, though it will demand more effort on the part of the listener to understand you.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Nina, Yes, I've heard that and good about prioritizing. As you can see from today's post, I dropped the kanji (it was too much).

@Ellen, Thanks for the tips. They sound fun.

@Mike - Funny you should say that - we just got a TV. :-)

@Christophe - Good to hear from you! I dropped trying to recognize the kanji and am just working on the hiragana now. My teacher writes everything out in hiragana AND romaji so I get both. But yes, more emphasis right now on speaking and not on reading.

@Blaze - I signed up for a writing workshop because I would like to write a book. We will see how it goes - the Frenchlings say that if I write a book they will never speak to me again. :-)

@Bruce - I would LOVE to hear more about your experience as a mature language learner (love the term). And good point about the accent - it really isn't such a bit deal and even adds an element of interest...

@Kermit - Scrabble? Not my thing. Maybe solitaire?

@LarryC - I hear you - not easy to learn without live human beings to talk with (the tutor was the best investment I made).

Interesting that you are getting "interference" from your other languages. I wonder if that's a common issue?

@Nezumi-san - Oh yeah! After spending years on French verb tenses, Japanese verbs are a snap. :-) And no masculine or feminine for nouns - this is heaven. But other things are more complicated. My tutor spends a lot of time on intonation. I also find that I have trouble waiting for the sentence to finish (the French like to interrupt).

Any recommendations for resources for learning kanji? I will pick it up again but the book I have is just not working for me.

Jayne said...

Hi Victoria,
What you say does ring bells. I also learned French in high school and college but found it insufficient when I moved to France. So I only really learned to speak French in my 20's. Even after 40 years in France, my French retains a strong New England accent. In my 60's I moved to Denmark and a new language. Despite a 2-year course, my Danish is still very hesitant and with a heavy French accent. My brain seems to classify languages in 2 categories: first and second, so when searching for the correct Danish word, sometimes a French word comes out of my mouth. It is indeed more difficult to learn a language without workplace, PTA meetings, etc. So I've joined some local activities like knitting club and gym for elderly. I always ask people to speak slowly, and most comply (before forgetting and continuing at their usual speed).
Good luck with your new language!

Inaka Nezumi said...

I've definitely experienced the interference thing, trying to respond to people in French and having Japanese come out. Very frustrating, actually!

As for kanji learning resources, I'll answer in your new post.

Blaze said...

@Victoria Why don't the Frenchlings want you to write a book?

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Jayne, Good luck to you as well. I would love to hear your Danish with a French accent. :-) The activities, I think, would a good tip for me. I will look into that. I quilt and maybe I can find some Japanese quilters to join.

@Nezumi-san, That makes several people now who mention interference from the other languages. I'm going to look into this because I am sure it's been studied.

@Blaze, Not sure but they ahve said that they will never speak to me again if I wrote on of those expat memoirs. :-)

LarryC said...

Language interference - I've posted a Linkedin thread on this topic in the 'Skype' discussion group. I may cross-post in several French business groups of which I'm a member, and I'll post back with comments and experiences as they happen.

Emily-Jane said...

Do you still have your Seattle Public Library card? If so, you could try their two online language learning tools, Mango Languages and Transparent Language Online. (Both are linked from the SPL webpage). I haven't tried Transparent Language Online but Mango Languages is both fun and informative.

Many of your other commenters are wise to suggest that you create your own games -- you'll learn while creating them, and while playing them too.

Have fun with Japanese!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Hi Emily, I wish I did because that sounds darn useful.

Maybe I could get one next time I'm in Seattle...


Sean said...
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