How well can an adult learn a foreign language?

I took four years of German in high school. I was decent at it, but wasn’t as committed as I could have been and in the near-decade since I graduated, I’ve forgotten most of the language.

This fall, I’m starting a foreign language certificate program in German and I want to be good. GOOD.

But I fear I’m too old. That my brain won’t let me process a new language. So I was hoping that there were a few Dopers out there that could reassure me with stories about becoming late-in-life polyglots.

I’ve tried and failed several times.

But what I’ve heard is that if you start after the age of seven, you will always speak the language with an accent.

I also think that some people have a gift for it. I once knew a guy that was fluent in 31 languages, and could sort of speak 100 more. To me, that’s just… What’s the word I’m looking for?

How old is too old?

I’m 29 and have learned how to speak Bulgarian in the last year and a half. It’s not perfect, and I do have an accent*, but it’s fluent enough that pretty much every time I have a conversation with a stranger they ooh and ahh over my mad skillz. (Not a lot of foreigners bother to learn their crazy language.)

I’m not any kind of language genius, either, although I think I have a pretty good ear.

*One of the highlights of my Bulgarian-speaking career was when someone asked me if I was Macedonian. Bulgarian and Macedonian are basically the same language with different accents. I was *sooo * tickled!

My wife and I were both 45 when we joined the Foreign Service. I was able to attain moderate fluency in both Portuguese and French (speaking and reading), and my wife was able to attain excellent fluency in French (reading and speaking). Of course, she cheated by studying and doing the homework. I had not had either language before; my wife had studied French in high school. The training was fairly intense, with the Foreign Service Institute requiring attendence of about six hours per day of immersion over the course of six months.

Two years ago (at age 58) we started studying at a local Spanish school, one night a week. We became reasonably conversant in that time.

It can certainly be done, but it requires effort on your part to keep up with it, review, drill, do the homework, practice at home, etc.

It can be done, I’ve seen it many times over. I learned to speak passable Czech after I moved to Prague in my late 20’s. Nobody would mistake me for a native, but I had friends that were that fluent. My friend could have a ten minute conversation with a native Czech speaker before they realized he wasn’t born and raised in Prague, and he didn’t know a word of it until he moved there in his late 20’s as well. His wife is a native Brazillian (how many is that again?), and she didn’t speak a word of English until her early to mid 20’s. She’s fluent now, with a charming Brazillian accent. Since you were already decent in German, you could be very good with some hard work.

you know the old joke:
*"What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
Answer : trilingual

"What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
Answer : bilingual

So what do you call a person who speaks one language?
Answer : An American.*

Most of the human beings on the planet earth speak more than one language.
So you can do it, too. Even if you’re American.

Learning a language is something that ANY intelligent adult can do. Some people (not me, unfortuately) can do it like learning music–just pick it up by ear.
Other people, like me, have to laboriously memorize all the rules of grammar, and then learn to use them by practicing over and over and over.

Learning a language can be complicated.
Learning ,say, nuclear physics can also be complicated.
But there is a big difference —A language makes you feel STOOPID.
When you start out studying nuclear physics, you don’t know how difficult it will be, because you start with the simple concepts, and then gradually work up. You don’t feel stupid, because each step on the way, from 1st grade science class up to your PhD degree, is new and interesting.

But when you start learning a language, you already know in advance how complex it will be,( because you already speak your native language at ‘PhD level’ ), --yet you have to begin by reducing yourself to the level of a child in 1st grade.

It is humiliating to be an adult and not be able function like an adult. But if you decide that you want to learn, then you can ignore the feelings of humiliation, and use each mistake as another step on the journey.

If I want to learn the chemistry periodic table, I would have to repeat it over and over to memorize it. Imagine saying “Fe means Iron, Na means sodium, Pb means lead” etc,etc. Lots of boring repetition. But it doesn’t make you feel stupid, because, hey, I’m learning, right?

Now, if you want to learn to conjugate a verb ,you have to repeat
" I eat the apple" “I ate the apple” “I will eat the apple”
Lots of boring repetition—But it makes you feel stupid.
But, hey, you’re learning, right?

Go for it!

It’s not that you cant learn language at an older age, it’s that younger brains are much much better at it. You wont necessarily have an accent with enough practice either.

Older people can have trouble hearing and reproducing sounds that don’t occur in their native language. I know a lot of people who have lived here in the US for a long time and speak perfectly fluent English, but still have strong accents.

I have heard that for monolinguals, learning your first additional language is the most difficult. After that, your brain us used to the idea that there are different ways to do things, and the third language is merely difficult rather than excruciatingly-difficult.

That being said, I cannot overemphasize the necessity of practice. Every day. Immerse yourself in the new language, if at all possible. The intense training described by Chefguy–six hours a day–is idea, but far far beyond what most people get in adulthood without moving to another country or something. It’s no wonder they learned it.

Two evening classes a week is the bare minimum; you must email, chat, talk, go out to pubs, read, write, listen to music, watch movies, etc, all in the new language, as often as you can.

I find as time goes by I realise more connections between languages (specifically European) so that at the very least I can understand the structure or basic sentences of a newly familiar language quicker than when I was younger learning them in school. However I would still probably have been much better learning a few languages when I was very young.

:: rereads OP ::

My own experience? I’m Canadian. I studied French from Grade 8, but never became fluent in it, because I never had a place to practice it. But I see French every day, mostly on our bilingual packaging, and I know it’s latent in the back of my head somewhere. I very much want to resume my French lessons at Alliance Française, and this time be social in it. I was able to buy bus tickets and meals in French when I was in Montréal last time, so that was good.

Seven years ago I started learning Esperanto; it took me about two years to achieve some basic fluency. But even now, I am far from an expert, and I read a lot more slowly in Esperanto than I do in English. My friend was fluent in six months, but then he a) was younger than me; b) was much smarter than me; and c) put a lot more effort into it during those six months. (I had distracting trivia like a job to deal with.)

Esperanto is something of a special case, though, because it’s a lot simpler than many languages. It will take longer to achieve a certain level of fluency in French or Japanese than the same level of fluency in Esperanto.

The most important thing about learning a new language is the immersion. You can go through flashcards and listen to tapes all you want, but unless a good chunk of the world around you–the television you watch, the radio you listen to, the people you speak with, the internet sites you browse–is in that language, you’re going to have a really hard time retaining what you’ve learned.

So other than your usual studying habits, make it a point to hang out with people that speak the language fluently. Watch shows in that language - you can get a lot of foreign stations via satellite, and depending on your geography you may even pick up a couple of things on cable. Rent foreign language films, and watch with subtitles until you can get a feel for what they’re saying. Read lots, especially comics/children’s books, since the vocabulary used tends to be a lot simpler and you have pretty pictures to help you understand what’s going on.

I’ve been very lucky. In addition to being a total bookworm, I’ve had many opportunities to travel back to my home country as a young child. Last time I went back, I think it only took me a day or two before I was thinking in Chinese again.

If you want to learn Middle English, you can read Chaucer’s blog. :smiley:

You didn’t mention your age, but since it’s a language you already have experience with, related to one you already know, you shouldn’t have any problems. You do need to put in the time and effort, though. If you want a good accent, find a native speaker with the accent/dialect you want, and intereact as much as possible to find the points you might not even be able to hear.

Some people do have more talent for language than other people, but you can always improve your native talent. Even talent in different aspects of language varies. For example, I learn to read new languages fairly quickly, (with the exception of a written language like Japanese), but speaking? I’m not so good.

Other factors in language learning – how different is the target language from other languages you already know? Indo-European languages have enough in common so that adding another one mostly takes putting in time and effort. But for an adult Indo-European speaker learning a non-Indo-European language (and vice-versa, of course) requires a bit more brain rewiring.

The biggest difference I find with language learning and age (I’m middle-aged now) is enthusiasm. I still would like to add both Russian and Japanese to my repetoire, but am no longer excited enough about either to put in the required effort. It’s enough work to maintain the languages I already have, when I don’t use them much.

Good luck with German! At least it’s easy to get German newspapers, radio and tv, and movies! And to go to Germany and hang out in beer halls. …

I actually just started a new language. I’m a native english speaker, took 6 years of Spanish (although I’m forgetting it because I don’t use it much), and now I’m learning Ukrainian. Really, it’s all motivation.
Being an adult does have SOME benefits–I remember being deathly afraid of speaking to native speakers when I learned Spanish. Now I really don’t care, because I realized that people are usually happy you’re making an effort to learn their language.

OP mentions that he/she is less than 10 years out of high school, so I’d assume 26+/-2.

I didn’t start learning Japanese until I was 20, and had to work hard at it, but more people do than don’t.

You have an advantage in that you can start off by reading the letters, even if you don’t understand all the words. Then there’s all the similar words.

It all depends on how much effort you put into it. If you really want to sound as close to a native as possible, you can works specifically on that.

Good luck!

My cousin, who admittedly is very bright and outgoing, went back to college in his late 20’s, developed an interest in Germany and German culture, took a lot of German classes, went over there for a semester, and he’s been there and back since for years at a time, working and living there. I don’t know how much of an American accent he has, but he navigates entirely in the language and I’d say he’s fluent.

My grandparents were both born in Barcelona. She’s Catalan, he’s the son of a cop. When they met, she didn’t speak Spanish and he didn’t speak Catalan. 70 years later, they definitely revert when pissed, there’s sometimes you can tell “woah, you just translated that word by word,” but they’ve been mostly bilingual for the almost 40 years I’ve known them.

Of course they had the advantage that both languages are very similar and mutually intelligible.

She. And 25.

I have several things going for me, I think. One, that English (my mother tongue) is a Germanic language, so the alphabet and sounds are similar. Two, I still remember a lot of the language structure from my high school days, even though my vocabulary has gone the way of the dodo. And three, living in a large urban area, with a little bit of effort, I can find books, movies, and papers in German so I can emerse myself daily.

Thanks for all the wishes of luck and good experiences!

My Arabic improved more in a couple weeks in Yemen than in 3 years here. In fact, I am considering going to Yemen for 3, 6 maybe even 12 months to study there. It is when there is no English at all, you learn fast.