It’s humbling, for sure, to begin at the beginning in learning something brand new. It’s like being a child again on the first day of school. This is especially true after decades of success as a professional in another, most likely unrelated field. We’d become accustomed to being respected, maybe admired, surely rewarded, for our brains and abilities. Now what? Back to Square One?
Learning a new language, for example, as an older adult requires immense humility, I’ve found. The old ego wants to turn away from this seemingly gargantuan challenge in a huff. Who wants to appear foolish in a social setting by making a verbal mess of things? The prospect of being laughed at at this stage of life is too much to take.
In the nearly eight years I’ve lived here in lovely San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I’ve met a few people who came to retire and expected to become fluent in Spanish in no time. When this didn’t happen within a couple of years, despite their sincere and steady efforts with Spanish text books, classes, and private tutors, these older, former professionals became discouraged and returned to the States.
They had been used to succeeding – excelling – at their every endeavor. Failing to become fluent in Spanish was unacceptable to them.
Others, I’ve observed, stay in San Miguel but give up on learning Spanish because it’s “just too hard on the old brain,” they claim. This, to my way of thinking, is a shame because it narrows one’s world here.
When gringos only speak and socialize with other English speakers, they risk living in a small, closed bubble and viewing Mexicans as “other.” This promotes an Us/Them mentality, which benefits no one.
If our Spanish vocabularies only go so far as to allow us to give orders to taxi drivers, housekeepers, gardeners, and waiters, we’re not fully living here.
I’ve got to confess, though, that I’ve abandoned all hope of ever speaking Spanish fluently in this lifetime. But, as is my stubborn-Taurus wont, I’m not giving up on learning Spanish poco a poco every day. I still have my weekly private lessons with my dear, patient, steadfast maestra Edith; and I do a Duolingo lesson online over lunch every day.
Letting go of any expectation of earning an “A” in this self-imposed language course is rather liberating. I’m free to progress at my own speed.
And my progreso remains, as ever (alas), glacial. But the joy I feel when I’m able to communicate – more and more every week – with these friendly and embracing Mexican people is incalculable. And, yes, I feel like a child again when I grope for the right words and they, figuratively speaking, pat me on the head.
In my cursory research into why it seems so hard to learn a new language in older age, I just came across these enlightening tidbits from blogger Gabe Wood:
“It is true,” he says, “that older language learners will have to work a bit harder than young ones. A study from researchers at Harvard and MIT found that children are able to absorb new languages faster than adults until the age of eighteen or nineteen, and that the ideal age to learn a language is before ten.”
But, he goes on to say, “While older adults generally have a harder time learning languages compared to youngsters, age does come with some upsides. Adults have higher executive functioning compared to children, which makes them better at planning, focusing, and achieving goals. Those are all great traits to have when learning a language” (https://blog.rosettastone.com/why-is-it-harder-to-learn-a-new-language-when-older/ ). To his list I would add the trait stubbornness.
My struggle to improve my Spanish-speaking skills here has been an ongoing subject for my WOW posts and will likely continue to be. The last time I tackled it was in August, in which I quoted humorous relevant passages from Carol Merchasin’s wonderful book, This is Mexico. If you missed that post – or if you want another good laugh – please go to: www.bonnieleeblack.com/blog/learning/ .
Hasta la próxima (until next time)!