Have you ever listened to people having a conversation in another language and wished that you knew what they were saying? Or been abroad and felt frustrated that you were unable to order your food or ask for directions?
Learning a new language is a fantastic way to boost your brainpower, open yourself up to new adventures, and understand other cultures better. No matter what age you are or how many languages you can already speak, it’s never too late to fall in love with learning again.
Research has shown that older adults are just as capable as younger generations at learning a new language, if not more so. As the saying goes, “life begins when you step outside of your comfort zone” – and what better way to take those first steps over the threshold than by learning a new language, or simply dusting off and polishing existing language skills?
Here are five benefits you could enjoy by learning a new language, plus tips on how to get started…
1. Brain benefits
When it comes to acquiring a new language, it’s not just the destination that’s important, it’s the journey. Science suggests that taking up another language can improve cognitive ability and keep the brain young. This is because the language learning process engages several different parts of the brain and improves connectivity between these parts as a result. It’s thought that by learning a new language, you can help delay your risk of dementia by up to five years.
Learning a language also requires you to learn, remember, and recall grammar and vocabulary, which gives your memory a good workout and helps to keep it functioning well. Some scientists even believe that language training can actually make your brain bigger!
2. Advance your career
People who can speak two or more languages may have an advantage when it comes to applying for jobs. Employers tend to look highly upon people with multiple language skills because they are able to communicate with people across multiple communities – including clients or colleagues in other countries. If you’ve learnt one or more languages later in life, employers may also be impressed that you have the motivation and drive to learn new skills.
Those who become really fluent in a new language can also apply for language-dependent roles, like interpreting, tutoring, or international development.
3. Boost your confidence
Learning a language is by no means easy, but it can be a fun way to challenge yourself and work on your self-development. It’s not uncommon for people to avoid situations that they feel may be tricky because they’re worried about failure. However, if you can move past these fears and begin to push beyond your limits, you might surprise yourself with how much you can achieve – and when we find success, no matter how small, our confidence levels tend to rise.
Start by setting yourself small goals. For example, even if you can work towards chatting to a native speaker of another language for ten minutes, you’re likely to feel more confident – especially if it’s something you thought you couldn’t do before.
4. Cultural appreciation
The process of learning a new language can be very refreshing as it allows you to consider different perspectives and embrace views other than your own. Languages are steeped in history and social trends, and so by learning to understand well-known phrases and commonly used words, you’ll start to gain a much deeper understanding of a country than you might expect.
It can be hugely satisfying when you find yourself starting to understand little snippets of conversations overheard in other languages or being able to speak to non-English speaking people in their own language.
Language learning has even been said to help increase kindness and inclusiveness in the world – as people begin to understand each other better, it becomes natural to act with greater compassion and empathy.
5. An excuse to travel
What better excuse is there travel to beautiful countries like Costa Rica, Mexico, and Cuba, than to practise your Spanish? Once you start learning a language, chances are you’ll frequently look for opportunities to put your new language skills into practice. And while practising with non-native speakers can still be helpful, there’s nothing like immersing yourself fully in the language, customs, and cultures of countries that speak the language you’re trying to learn.
People often say that the best way to learn something new is to throw yourself in at the deep end and travelling abroad to challenge your language skills is a great way to do that.
What’s it like to learn a language over 50?
George, 55, is a full-time Environmental Health Officer and father-of-two from London, who took up Spanish two years ago in his spare time. He says:
“I have always liked the sound of the Spanish language and also the idea of being able to speak a second language, so it seemed logical that at some point I might have a go at learning Spanish. For most of my adult life I only knew a few words, but liked the idea of learning the grammar and expanding my vocabulary.
“At age 53, I enrolled onto a local Spanish class, which I attended one evening a week. I started in the beginners class, then joined the improvers class, and now I’m at an intermediate level.
“While I wouldn’t say I’m fluent yet, it’s great to be able to get the gist of Spanish conversation when I hear it. It gives a new dimension to Spanish film, music, and travel. I enjoy travelling to Spanish speaking parts of the world such as Cuba and Costa Rica (both of which I have recently visited). I also think learning a second language is a great way of keeping the brain active in later years as well as making new friends. I’ve really enjoyed learning a new language at this stage of my life, but I would recommend it to anybody.”
How do I get started?
If you decide that you’d like to learn a new language, then there are a few things to consider that will help you get on your way…
1. What language do you want to learn?
For some people, the answer to this question is easy – perhaps you’ve always enjoyed the sound of a particular language or have some basic language skills already that you’d like to develop further. For others, it may be driven by having friends or family in a different part of the world.
But if you aren’t sure which language you’d like to learn, then it’s worth thinking about what you want to gain from your language learning experience. For example, would you like to be able to visit a particular country and speak the local language of the natives? Or is there a job you want to apply for further down the line that requires a particular language? It’s also worth thinking about how commonly a language is spoken. It could be beneficial to learn something like Chinese or Spanish – as these are some of the most widely spoken languages in the world.
2. How do you want to learn it?
- Attending a weekly classroom-based language class. These are often held in the evenings and will have different levels of difficulty from beginner right through to advanced. This is a great way to have a more guided learning experience whilst getting the opportunity to practice with peers and with the support of a tutor.It’s best to check with your local universities, colleges, and adult education centres to see which language courses may be available to you. It can also be a good idea to contact your local council to find out about any language classes held at local community centres.
- Use an online language programme or course. Some people prefer to teach themselves and work at their own pace using online activities to work on their spoken, written, and verbal language skills. The beauty of this type of learning is that you can fit it into your daily routine at a time that suits you, whether that’s practising on the way to and from work or during your lunch break.
- Use mobile apps. If you aren’t sure whether or not you’d like to commit to learning a language yet, then there are a few casual and low-commitment ways that you could begin learning some basic language skills. Mobile apps like Duolingo, Memrise, and Quizlet offer fun games and activities which will allow you to learn basic vocabulary and grammar whilst on the move.
- Make use of films, books, and magazines. If you want to make language learning fun and tie it in with some of your favourite leisure activities, then this can be a great way to do so. Try watching TV or films spoken in the language that you want to learn and only look at the English subtitles if you really need to. You can also try reading some short novels or magazines. You might be surprised at how many words you already know.
- Visit your local library. Here, you can find a number of language-learning resources such as books, magazines, and audiobooks that you can borrow for free and use in your own time.
- Travel. Some people prefer to learn languages by immersing themselves in it so that they have no choice but to learn – and they also get the cultural benefit too! There are a number of different options if you decide to do this – you may want to go it alone or travel with a friend or family member.
If you fancy going the solo route, then why not have a read of our Guide to solo travel? Or you may decide you’d prefer to stay with a host family who can help you get to grips with your new surroundings, support your language learning, and introduce you to life as a local.
Through websites like Home Stay In, you can find and book stays with host families around the world – this is usually a much cheaper option than staying in hotels, apartments, or hostels.
3. How do I stay motivated while learning a new language?
However you decide to learn a new language, try to make it as fun as possible and practise at every opportunity you get. Learning a new language is no different to learning anything else in the sense that the more you practise, the better you’ll get.
If you love the idea but the thought of it seems like a huge uphill climb, then try reducing the upfront hurdle by starting small, for example, by downloading an app like Duolingo for just five or ten minutes a day, and see how you get on.