Language learning vs age: truths and myths
Goals, advantages and disadvantages of language learning in adult life
Long life learners are adults who choose to keep an active mind by accepting diverse educational challenges even after their retirement. It is an increasingly common tendency that is striving to make its way also in the language field. It is commonly believed that learning a language is an activity that should take place at a young age, but is that true or is it just a false myth? Is age an insurmountable obstacle for adults wishing to learn a second language? It is not completely unfunded the theory affirming that younger students (0-12) have a cognitive advantage for language acquisition, since some areas of language – such as pronunciation – are hardly learnt at the level of a native speaker after the 12th year of age. However just considering one parameter is quite simplistic and reductive, on the contrary it is necessary to have a wider angle to fully answer the question.
First of all we need to distinguish acquisition from learning: whereas the first is a spontaneous process that doesn’t involve the understanding of grammatical rules, the second is instead an active process that is voluntary, continuous (as everyone continuously learns and un-learns) and feasible by anybody. Should we consider acquisition it would be true that it cannot take place easily with mature learners. For instance because adults need to be given meanings whereas children are able to focus just on phonetic imitation. But if on the contrary we consider language learning, it is a process that requires a certain engagement that can more likely be present in adults.
Once we have explained what exactly is learning in opposition to acquisition, in order to address the question of age basing on steady definitions, it is then necessary to agree on the objectives of language teaching: Villarini and La Grassa argue that:
the objective of language teaching is not the full and absolute mastery of a second language, but a plurilingual and pluricultural competence that may give the individual the possibility of improving her\his overall communicative skills
Linguistic abilities and critical ages
Learning a language, if analysed with a more modern approach, is then not a mechanical process only aiming to perfect certain linguistic abilities, but it becomes a mission of self improvement at various degrees that involves the individual as a whole. It becomes than evident that if we set a less narrowed goal that does not only take into consideration proficiency through the constant comparison with the native speaker, language learning is within everyone’s reach regardless of age.
Language is not a single ability, in-fact it is a combination of skills; which means that the various areas of language are differently affected by the age of the learner. Therefore everyone of this skills reacts differently to the natural biological aging of the brain. If, as anticipated, pronunciation is an ability that needs to be learnt within the 12th year of age in order do reach the level of native speakers; synthax, morphology and metalinguistic abilities need to wait until adolescence for their development. Lexicon instead can be learnt until and past 65 years of age.
As a matter of fact there is no evidence that (besides specific medical conditions) any substantial change in short term or long term memory takes place with age; at most it can be observed a lessened functionality of the working memory, resulting in a moderate cognitive decline mildly affecting the ability of text comprehension.
Therefore we can conclude that if we don’t limit language learning to being able to reach perfection in all linguistic skills but, on the contrary, we define it as a never ending process aiming to improve one’s communicative abilities in a broader sense, age ceases to be an obstacle, thus becoming a mere parameter to accurately take into account when outlining the objectives of a course and, therefore, the methods to be used.