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)!
22 thoughts on “Beginners”
Hi Bonnie, thanks for sharing your struggle to become fluent in Spanish. I have been doing the same ( seemingly forever) in French. I never had the opportunity to live in France more than a month, but I have taken lessons at Alliance Française many times. And we go there as often as possible and use the language wherever possible. I have reached a point where I can ( pretty much) say what I want to say. I can read and write passably. But understanding a Parisian, is still near impossible ( My mild hearing loss is no help, either ). Happily, I have accepted my limitations and enjoy French as best I can. I did read Camus ( L’étranger ) in French. Best to you. Agua fria.
Thanks so much for sharing your language-learning experience, Ted. Yes, when Spanish-speakers here speak at their “normal” rate — which is super-fast — I’m totally thrown. But they’re willing to slow it down when asked to. 🙂 I’m sure your French is impressive! You and Claudia must come here to SMA so we can speak French together (ha-ha). — BB
Another advantage children have is they aren’t afraid of making mistakes. Anne (A Spanish teacher who visits San Miguel every March and September.)
P.S. I enjoy your blog.
Thank you, Anne. So glad you enjoy my WOWs! Yes, if only we could all be like children in that respect. 🙂
Just remember that linguists say that Spanish is the easiest language to learn, especially for English speakers. Keep on learning. It’s good for an old brain.
Ah, Pat, I wish that were true of me. I think I found French easier to adapt to when I lived in Francophone Africa. But then my brain was a whole lot younger. 🙂
I applaud you, Bonnie. Once again you’ve proven to to be a unique person who’s not afraid to embrace the challenges and tackle the hard stuff! Where most give up or turn away, you always manage to step up and face them head on. This is the perfect example of taking the journey rather than focusing on the destination. Your journey has always been an inspiration.
Well, Michael dear, maybe it’s just that I was born a super-stubborn Taurus! 🙂 (Other people have criticized me for this strong trait.) I applaud YOU for your amazing and admirable journey. You are an inspiration to me.
Nelson has been working on learning Spanish for several months. He is diligent and has to do lessens everyday. Very proud for him sticking to learning. He actually gets excited for the next lessen.
How wonderful! Bravo, Nelson!
Good one Bonnie! I think of my Afghan “son’s” 38 year old brain — he knows 6 languages — and his pre-teen sons who each know 4 (Dari, English, Greek and German)! Fortunately for us, Mexicans are typically kind and patient, and pretend not to notice when we make a mess of their language.
Yes, you’re so right, querida Kim. We’re lucky to live among such kind and tolerant people here in Mexico. I recall, though, that when I lived in Francophone Africa and spoke (well, let’s put it this way) less-than-perfect French, it was a GOOD thing because the Africans then knew I was NOT French. They were not fond of the French. 🙂
You have perfectly illustrated why I never read articles explaining that older adults have more difficulty learning a language than children. They feed the little voice in my head that whispers, “You can’t do this.” I prefer to feed the voice that says I can. That voice may be very faint, but it gives me strength to never give up and faith that some day I will be able to truthfully say “Sí, hablo español.”
Thank you for this, Robert. Yes, “never give up.” That’s my motto too! Keep on keepin’ on…
So true. Yep, every week poco a poco. Or is that poco y poco?
Thanks, Lyn. I think it’s “poco a poco.” But, hey, I’m not fluent! 🙂
Perhaps it’s a good thing to feel like a child in your conversational exchanges since children learn languages more quickly. The number of English language learners in schools increases each year, and I have learned that our own perception plays a role in this issue. I may judge a student’s English skills to be good or very good, but that student may judge those same skills as weak or inadequate. If a person can make her or himself understood in another language, even somewhat ineptly, then I think the necessary goal has been reached. Any native speaker worth talking to will look indulgently on the efforts of anyone attempting to learn their language.
Ah, yes, dear Paul — that’s the goal, isn’t it, to make ourselves understood. Somehow, despite my lack of fluency,
I’m more and more able to make myself understood. I find Mexicans very happy to fill in the blanks for me. It’s always a fun exchange, and we often laugh about it.
Thank you Bonnie for encouraging me to keep trying
De nada, Joni! I really think that’s the best any of us can do. 🙂
Tú eres muy inteligente, Bonnie querida. I remember when you took my Spanish class in Taos. You told us the story of the parrot, el papagayo, en español. ¡Orale, chica!
You remember that, querida Te?! That was about nine years ago! You have a muy fantastico memory! YOU are the intelligent one. — xx