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“Just” Learn English – Challenges of Late-Life Language Learning

Whether you’re seeking employment, continuing education, or simply socializing and interacting with the people around you, there are many benefits to knowing the native language of your current location. And English – given its status as a popular language for business, science, mathematics, etc. – currently has the biggest bang for your linguistic buck in the United States and around the world.

That said, 9% of US residents still speak English “less than very well,” according to the 2012 US Census. We know being fluent can be beneficial, so why not “just” learn the language, as some might say?

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Fortunately, neuroscience provides some clues.

The Critical Period Hypothesis, first proposed by neurologists in 1959, states that second language acquisition is relatively fast and successful if it occurs before puberty. The medical term is neuroplasticity: the ability of the brain to adapt and learn new things, and neuroplasticity decreases as you age. After puberty, language learning requires greater effort and still yields less-than-perfect results. In other words, the older you are immigrating to US, the less likely you are to become truly fluent in English.

In line with this hypothesis, research finds that non-English-speaking immigrants who arrive after the critical period of language acquisition end up with significantly worse English skills than those who came as children or were born in the United States. One study suggests that a child’s innate language-learning skill starts decreasing by the age of 8. In 2009, the median age of arriving US immigrants was 22, with about half of new immigrants between the ages of 16 and 30. As a result, 50% of all US immigrants are Limited English Proficient, or, as the Census defines it, speak English “less than very well.”

There is a silver lining though; certain elements of language learning are actually easier with more age and experience. “Older people have larger vocabularies than younger ones, so chances are your vocabulary will be as large as a native,” says Albert Costa, professor of neuroscience at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain. This means seasoned learners have a large library of words of their native language in their heads, which they can pair with words from the language they are learning in ways which young children cannot.

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Benefits aside, it’s clear that being an adult can work against language acquisition, so it makes sense that many immigrants need assistance communicating in US society. As a result, professional interpreters play an important role in providing direct access to essential services for those who cannot communicate effectively in English for themselves.

Learn about Lee Health's leading language services program in the latest CyraCom case study.   Download Now