Last week I took my first Spanish lesson. Apparently, I am as qualified today as I was at my last language lesson almost 40 years ago. Surely, when I travel to Costa Rica this winter, I’ll be able to dazzle the kids with my ability to converse with the locals.
It turns out that there really is nothing holding us back after 50- there is no critical period for second-language learning, “no biologically determined constraint on language-learning capacity that emerges at a particular age, nor any maturational process which requires that older language learners function differently than younger language learners.”
According to AARP, older learners have some advantages: they are not only motivated to learn, but they have acquired study strategies, mnemonic devices, literacy skills, and other resources to make learning easier (like a private tutor that comes to the house.) Plus, learning a new language is great for the brain– it actually develops new neural pathways, makes new connections, adds flexibility. And who among us couldn’t use a few new neural pathways?
All of this is good news of course, but may not be such great news for me. Because while I might be as good at learning languages as I ever was, I was actually never very good. Because here is another truth: the same brain system that helps us learn language, also helps us learn music… and as far as I can tell, that system in my brain just isn’t that strong. Six years of piano lessons, and I can barely play chopsticks. Granted, I didn’t practice much- I’d spend my half hour with the piano eating the “guest chocolates” in the living room, later making excuses for my inability to learn the scales I’d been assigned (“I swear, Mr. Stern, I DID practice!”) Our piano had quite a few chocolate stains.
So why did I decide to learn Spanish? My friend Sandy and I were loitering together after an event we had attended…
ME: “I think I would like to learn Spanish. It is ridiculous not to know Spanish in this day and age.”
SANDY: “I agree. Me too.”
ME: “But I’m pathetic with languages, and I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast.”
SANDY: “Perfect. Me neither. Let’s do it.”
ME: “OK, then, you’re on.”
We were all talk at that point, and from time to time, I’ve talked about all sorts of things: learning to knit, mastering basic car mechanics, becoming a wine connoisseur, finishing War and Peace, to name a few. Naturally, I soon forgot about learning Spanish.
But a few months later, Sandy and I each got an email from a mutual friend who teaches Spanish at the local high school. Did we know anyone who might benefit from being tutored in Spanish?
How could we not answer this calling?
Before my first lesson, I thought back to my experiences with Spanish. I had a pretty big head start, but I didn’t tell Sandy- I would just let her think I was a quick learner. After all, I had watched Sesame Street religiously with my kids (and almost mastered numbers 1-10) and helped all 3 kids with their Spanish homework in high school, holding up flashcards while they attempted to memorize. There was also a “lave la cocina” thing my mother used to say at one point in my childhood, but no need to get into that.
Empowered, I drove up to Sandy’s house at the same time as our tutor.
“Hola!” she called out to me.
“Hola,” I replied back. And that was as far as I got with Spanish. “How are you doing? So good to see you! How’s your summer?” In return I got a babble of words, of which I understood nada.
Luckily, Sandy and I were in the same, equally pathetic place. Our tutor handed us each a book called “Exploring Spanish,” the outside of which made it very clear, in big block letters, that it was for “Grades 1-2”. While we both liked the idea of coloring, we thought we might be better off with a book called “Spanish For 50-Somethings Who Can’t Remember S#%t!” It would be really short, highly repetitious and not require any practicing.
Luckily, our goals are modest: Sandy is a big baseball fan and just wants to be able to pronounce the names of baseball players correctly. I want to make sure I get the right drink on our family trip to Costa Rica. If I learn, “Please, I’d like a Silver Patron with a splash of Cointreau and a wedge of lime, on ice,’” I’ll be happy too.
And maybe, just maybe, with a little luck, this whole experience will help me remember what I had for breakfast.