Senior Couple at the LibraryI was proudly telling my friends that I had started to learn another language. I had been dreaming about it for a good while but had always had an excuse: lack of time, my schedule was too flexible for regular classes, and I did not really need it anyway. Finally I took the plunge and – although only through a mobile application – I started to learn French.

Suddenly a friend of mine asked a question I had not expected. ‘Can you still learn at this age?’ I took a deep breath to get over the comment on my age and then remembered the questions and worries I hear every day from adult language learners.

Do I still have a chance to learn English?

Do you know a method for oldies like me?

I can’t learn as easily as I used to…

Learning German was so easy and English is a struggle.

I don’t have time to study, so there’s no point in going to class.

My brain won’t take in any more.

I’m studying with my daughter but she’s making much more progress.

Learning as an adult is definitely more of a challenge, but it is not a matter of brain capacity. Think back to your childhood. What was your primary and most important job? To study. Besides that you had to attend extra classes and training and choir, and then you had to hang out with friends and laugh a lot. Sometimes you had to clean your room and go to bed in time. It was much easier to focus your energies on learning as there were significantly fewer issues diverting your attention. (And still it was inevitable sometimes…) As an adult, however, your brain never stops dealing with tasks at work, family matters, what to make for dinner, what to buy for your kid’s birthday, where to go on holiday, how to find time to go to the dentist, and the list never ends.

20-30 years after school you are just as capable of learning as you used to be, but the load of information you are exposed to divides your attention to such an extent that a 90-minute language class can easily go to waste. Learning requires certain conditions to be present. You need to have a strong intention, maximum motivation, undivided attention and you must feel the information is relevant, important and useful for you. If you think about it, school learning was not entirely successful either. Did you ever check how much you remembered after the day of a test? And a year after your final exams?

It is not only attitude and attention that affect your ability to process information, but emotions aroused by people around you. If you learn a language because not speaking it threatens your job, position or future, fear in your brain will steal energy from mapping new information. You might also build resistance to learning from the insecurity of not knowing when you will be able to speak at the level you need to or not even knowing what level that is; or the fact that your boss and all your colleagues have much better skills and you feel embarrassed to participate in meetings; and you might feel it is unfair that you would be doing an excellent job and get that promotion were it not for communication with foreign clients.

The adult brain is burdened with a countless number of tasks and influenced by a wide range of events and emotions. In a perfect world you are wide awake and energised when you take a seat in a pleasant, quiet room every day, where you do not get distracted, you have no problems and issues, your relationships are harmonious, you are relaxed and happy and excitedly looking forward to learning.

Unfortunately, the world is far from perfect, but you can work on it…

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