Am I Too Old To Learn A Language? Here’s What I Found Out


Everybody has a recurring high school nightmare, right? Mine is walking into Grade 11 French class for a test that I forgot about. Quelle horreur!

I’ve had the same bad dream at least a hundred times, and I always wake from it with a racing heart. Psych 101 tells us it’s a common anxiety dream that everyone has as their night brain tries to deal with daily life. Sure, I buy that. But why French? That, I chalk up to my own insecurity of never having learned another language and the way that reality impedes some of my travel choices.

If there was ever a time to rectify this situation, the pandemic provided it. So, after I went through my banana-bread/sourdough-loaf/1000-piece-puzzle phase, I started looking into online French programs.

Let me tell you, there’s no shortage of choice. You can book a tutor through sites like verbling sign up for more formalized online classes at Berlitz or try a language app like Duolingo or Babbel.

How I chose my language program

After some initial research, I went the app route, signing up with Babbel. I loved it because it worked with my weird schedule – you can complete a lesson in about 15 minutes if that’s all the time you have, or you can sit down for a full day of learning. Your choice! But what I loved even more was that it appealed to my sensibilities in terms of what and how it would teach me. I’m mostly a visual learner, meaning I need to see and write down information in order to process and remember it. But, I also like to hear things on repeat so my ear grows attuned to the rhythm and nuance of words. Babbel offers all of those approaches, usually in the same lesson. Plus, you can review lessons as often as you want.

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The whole experience was light years away from my memories of French grammar class. With the app, I’m not just memorizing je suis/tu est, but learning how to use the words in ways that feel germane – like getting coworkers together for a beer after work.

How this language app works

All of the learning at Babbel is delivered using conversations in relatable situations. And I have to say, memorizing a sentence or phrase feels way more satisfying than memorizing a list.  

This idea of situational dialogue is key to Babbel’s approach: “Focusing on practical communicative skills, we introduce grammar and vocabulary in the context of everyday situations. For example, to politely order coffee, you would say “please” as well as a conditional verb (like “could” or “would”). Learners don’t have to understand the entire grammatical concept of conditional verbs to master ordering coffee, just a small part of it.”

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The bonus of learning a new language, I’ve since learned, is that it’s an amazing workout for your brain because it forces you to use parts of your noggin that might be a little dusty or under-exercised. You really start to feel a little sharper.

And younger? Possibly. According to a study in the Journal of Neuroscience, lifelong bilingualism helps keep your cognitive abilities ship shape as you age. According to the study’s authors, “These results suggest that lifelong bilingualism offsets age-related declines in the neural efficiency for cognitive control processes.”

Another study from the Annals of Neurology, further confirms that a multi-language brain ages better. Their study followed over 800 students for approximately 50 years, starting when they were 11. Their results showed that “bilinguals performed significantly better than predicted from their baseline cognitive abilities, with strongest effects on general intelligence and reading.”

The part that perked up my ears, though, was that this study also showed a “positive effect of bilingualism on later-life cognition, including in those who acquired their second language in adulthood.”

Just goes to show, it’s never too late to start something new. And now that the world’s opening up again, who knows, a trip to Paris might be in my future. That’s what I’d call a win-win.