Young and stupid
Sure, it’s great to grow up bilingual. And yeah, I’ve heard about those studies claiming that people lose the ability to learn foreign languages as they get older. Yet people tend to forget one major detail when waxing poetic about children’s language-learning capabilities: that children are also brats with low attention spans.
While I’m not sure how language classes are approached at the German Gymnasium, one thing is certain about foreign language courses in the US: they are almost invariably the most ridiculed subjects at any given American high school. Most of my own Spanish teachers growing up had such strong American accents while speaking that we routinely laughed them out of the room, and when we finally had a teacher from Madrid, Señor Javier, my fellow students invented US-specific holidays as an excuse for skipping class, such as “All-American Day” and “National Circus Day.” While these shenanigans did display a unique kind of creativity, the underlying attitude was not particularly conducive to learning a foreign language.
Wisdom comes with age
However, that attitude usually fades as we age. Not only do we often become more patient and focused, but once the self-pity and solipsism of adolescence wear off, we also realize that there are benefits of learning a foreign language – an idea often lost on the younger set. For example: the first time I used Spanish to ask for cigarettes at my local bodega in Brooklyn, the man behind the counter charged me three dollars less than the usual price and grabbed a pack of Lucky Strikes from the hidden ‘tax-free’ cabinet in the back.
When I decided to move to Germany, my desire to perfect my German was driven by very tangible objectives. I listened to CD after CD, created hundreds of flashcards and drew grammar tables until my knuckles started to ache – a level of commitment and discipline I could have never mustered as a child in school. And then, as I began learning French aged 25, I realized another benefit to my age: I could use knowledge from Spanish and German to help me rather than starting from scratch.
Staying young at heart
Of course, learning a foreign language is always difficult. And while adults may have better reasons than children to put in the required work, it doesn’t mean they always do (a common theme among the many Americans and Brits living in Berlin).
However, my personal, non-scientific theory is that what makes language-learning hard for adults is not its difficulty, but rather how embarrassing it is. While a child might not notice or care if they say something incorrectly, once grown, we are more sensitive than ever to our mistakes. Becoming fluent in a foreign language requires discarding the identity we’ve carefully developed over years, temporarily losing our ability to charm and flirt, and inevitably enduring an uncomfortable period where we need to listen more than we speak.
The ideal approach to learning a foreign language incorporates the wisdom and dedication of maturity as well as a bit of the bold recklessness of youth. The learner need not be young, but when they speak in a foreign tongue, they should be playful, open and forget about adult concepts like dignity.