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What Is The Best Age To Learn French

Think you might be too old to learn French – well think again. Learning a new language is a great way to age-proof your brain according to scientists…

Learning another language or even several more languages helps to keep your brain sharp. It may also have significant health benefits attached in that it helps to protect your brain from cognitive problems. According to research by psychologists, learning a new language at any point in life sharpens your brain and may even protect against Alzheimer’s disease. For many people it’s also a feel-good factor to learn another language. Your trips and tours become even more exciting if you know the language of the place you are visiting. You are welcomed in a different manner to a place, city or country if you communicate with the locals in their mother tongue. By learning a new language you get better acquainted to the culture and civilisation of that particular place or country. It actually makes you a curious learner throughout your life.

What is the right age to learn a new language?

The best part of learning a language is that you can learn it at any age. Though some research shows that early exposure to more than two languages increases divergent thinking strategies which reflect in a child’s holistic development, it’s also good for us to learn whatever age we are. Generally speaking It’s harder to learn French when you’re older though the reasons why are not known. (Read top tips for learning French when you’re a bit older here).

There’s a ‘Czech’ proverb which means­­ “You live a new life for every new language you learn…..If you know only one language, you live only once.”

PARIS — When Notre-Dame burst into flames, I turned on the French TV news and realized that I had little vocabulary for either fires or churches. Whole sentences about collapsing spires were unintelligible to me.

This happens a lot. When I moved to Paris in my early 30s and started learning French practically from scratch, I knew I’d never sound like a native. But I envisioned a hero’s journey in which I struggled for a few years, then emerged fluent, or at least pretty good.

Fifteen years later, I’ve made strides, but they’re not heroic. I’ve merely gone from bad to not bad. I can usually follow the news, handle transactional conversations and muddle through any situation. Interviewing people is fine, because I’m mostly listening. If required, I can read French books.

Yet my French is still riddled with gaps and mistakes. When I try to tell a story in French, I sense that the listener wants to flee. Things I’ve done recently to avoid writing formal letters — a staple of French administrative life — include not reporting a slow leak in my bathroom and not filing for possible medical malpractice.

Shouldn’t I be much better by now? Why is language learning so difficult?

Hoping for an expert opinion — and perhaps some expert solace — I phoned Joshua Hartshorne, the director of the Language Learning Laboratory at Boston College.

The sorry state of my French doesn’t surprise him. In a paper last year on which he was a co-author, based on an English grammar test taken by some 670,000 people, he found that — even for children — learning a language takes much longer than I’d thought. Children need seven or eight years of intensive immersion to speak like a native. These years must start by about age 10, to fit them all in by age 17 or 18, when there’s a sharp drop in the rate of learning. (He’s not sure whether this drop is caused by changes in the brain or in circumstances).

And native speakers keep perfecting their grammar into their 20s. They reach a level called “asymptote,” when they’re not getting noticeably better, by around age 30, the study found. (But vocabulary peaks at about age 60, according to a study in Psychological Science. That’s probably because native speakers have had time to accumulate lots of words, and they haven’t started forgetting them.)

What does this mean for someone who started learning French in her 30s? Dr. Hartshorne says my language-learning ability had sharply declined by then and was getting worse each year. In his study, nonnative English speakers who had been immersed in English in their late 20s made only slightly fewer grammatical mistakes than native speakers in preschool.