Can language skills be developed late in life?

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk.

This timeless quote by the premier mind of our generation, Dr. Stephen Hawking, tells us all we need to about the power of language. It is through our ability to communicate that we humans have developed into a dominant species. Our greatest successes have been due to our power to communicate, and our greatest failures caused by our inability to do so effectively.

Language Skills

When do we being to speak? Research suggests that a mother or father ‘talking’ to their child while he or she is still just a ‘baby bump’ in the mother’s womb can lead to improved speech skills in later life. So the process of cognitive development actually begins at the foetal stage itself.

After birth, of course, a child can easily pick up not one, but two or even three languages fairly easily; the brain is still in a developmental stage and can adjust to absorb the multiple languages. However, scientists observe that the later in life a child picks up a second language, the more difficult it can be to learn.

“The later in childhood that the second language is acquired, the greater are the changes in the inferior frontal cortex,” says Dr. Denise Klein, researcher in The Neuro’s Cognitive Neuroscience Unit and a lead author on the paper published in the journal Brain and Language. “Our results provide structural evidence that age of acquisition is crucial in laying down the structure for language learning.”

A ‘difference’ does not mean that it is impossible, however. We already observe that for a lot of people, the acquisition of a second or third language is not that difficult. Many children are 7 years old before they are introduced to a ‘second’ language in school, and yet manage to pick it up quite well. Of course, it does not hurt that they have to study to give exams in it.

As we grow older, the capacity to make those changes and for our bodies to enforce that change in the inferior frontal cortex presumably become harder. This is why very few people acquire fluency in a language after their school-going days are over. Sure, we may opt for an exotic European language like French, Spanish or German in college, but beyond learning enough written language to pass the exams I doubt very many students actually learn it well enough to converse with a native.

However, this does not meant that it is not possible at all to pick up a new language later in life. History is rich with examples of people who not only learned a language well into adulthood, but grew so proficient in it that they were able to write in it. Joseph Conrad, the legendary author of The Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, was a Polish immigrant who spoke little English until his late twenties. Agota Kristof spoke only Hungarian until her migration to Switzerland at 21, after which she achieved fame for her writing in French, including The Notebook. Milan Kundera too wrote primarily in Czech at the start of his career before switching over the French, and Vladmir Nabakov published nine novels in Russian before switching to English. Even Jhumpa Lahiri, after achieving so much success as a writer in English, recently began to write in Italian, a language she only learned quite recently.

The sheer effort required to learn another language increases with each passing year. But that does not mean that the endeavour is any less rewarding. In fact, the target you shoot for when you try to not just learn, but master a new language late in life is one that makes the effort doubly rewarding.

So let there be no excuses – your brain might be slower to handle these changes the older you get, but handle them it can. Let the world of learning never be closed to you. After all, your lack of knowledge of a new language is nothing but a silence surrounding you, and to conquer it, all you need to do is keep talking.

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Kunal is an ex-banker with a (largely self-proclaimed) flair for writing. He is an associate member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India and an MBA from Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS), Mumbai.

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