While it’s certainly possible to acquire a new language at any age, it will come as no surprise that there are certain changes that happen both in the brain and in the person that make adult language learners different from their child counterparts. From changing brain plasticity to developing a stronger sense of “self”, these aspects will both help and hinder the adult language learner on their road to fluency.
In the first part of this two-part post, we’ll consider what changes in the brain cause children and adults to have a different learning experience. In the second part, we’ll focus more on how the process of growing up itself can change the way people approach learning a new language.
How exactly do we learn?
In order to understand the changing brain, we first need to think about how information gets stored in the brain in the first place.
The human brain consists of billions upon billions of nerve cells, otherwise known as neurons. Estimates vary, but the number should be somewhere around 86 billion if you’re interested in the specifics.
And each of these tiny cells is connected to around 10,000 other neurons, creating particular patterns in the brain.
How exactly the patterns of connectivity are laid out (and how strong various connections are), is essentially what makes you “you”. Everything you know and are able to do is written in patterns of neural connections.
And whenever you learn something new, your brain needs to reorganise itself a tiny bit to accommodate the new info. So, the connections between some neurons get strong while some fade away, to be rerouted entirely.
The ability to change these neural patterns is called brain plasticity.
The root of it all: brain plasticity
Now, of course, the easier it is for your brain to reorganise connections, the easier it is for you to incorporate new info. And this is where the trouble starts because brain plasticity is highly tied to aging.
A young person’s brain is still developing, meaning that neurons and synapses (that connect different neurons) are much more malleable than in adults. Brain plasticity is much higher in the first few years after birth. In fact, young children have twice as many connections (synapses) between their brain cells than adults. This means that it is much easier for them to record new info, creating new connection patterns.
You can improve your brain plasticity
However, that doesn’t mean that once you reach adulthood, all is lost.
While the number of synapses and neurons declines later in life, there are certain compensation strategies that can help delay and even overcome the negative effects of declining brain plasticity.
One of the most effective ways to ensure your brain stays limber is to, well, use it. Learning and practicing have been shown to reverse the adverse effects of aging. There are also certain hobbies you can pick up to make sure your brain stays young as long as possible: try meditation, logic puzzles, and, of course, learning a new language.
In fact, learning a new language is a superdrug against declining brain health. The workout your brain receives when trying to acquire new vocabulary and build connections to previously stored information is like a full-body training session, which will help to keep your brain happy and healthy for longer.
Brain plasticity isn’t everything
There is one other learning superpower that adults have and children lack: experience.
It’s certainly a lot easier to acquire new information if you can create connections in your mind with other knowledge you already have. So, while it might be hard to acquire new vocabulary as you get older for biological reasons, experience and using correct learning strategies can more than make up for the lack.
Of course, as with everything, practice makes perfect.
That’s why it’s experienced language learners that will have a much easier time building connections between new information and what they’ve already stored. That’s why every next language you tackle is easier than the previous.
While it’s true that there are some biological factors that can hinder adult language learners from reaching fluency, it’s also certain the brain plasticity isn’t the only factor that influences your learning experience. Motivation, for example, plays an incredibly important role in how easy or hard you’ll find your learning experience. Much more so than any supposedly objective measure of language difficulty.
And even with declining brain plasticity, it’s not a slow descent into stagnation. There are certainly strategies you can adopt to make sure your brain stays healthy for longer, making learning a new language easier in the process.