Learn about the pros and cons of learning a new language in adulthood

Most adults learning a new language do it because of economical, political or social reasons that require new forms of communication in our globalized world.

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Most adults who learn a foreign language do it because of reasons, like professional growth, a journey to the respective country, motivation from the family, interest in the language, the wish to read a special work of literature in the original language, cultural identification, better understanding of movies or talking to other people speaking the language in question.

With globalization, many adults, who didn't learn a foreign language in their school education, want to or have to master a foreign language to adapt to the new environment.

But why should you learn a foreign language? To understand a movie in the respective language? To write an e-mail? To understand what is said in a conference? To read and understand a text?

Mastering a foreign language should make you able to do all those things. Andragogics, methods and principles in adult education, focuses on learning things necessary in everyday life and how to deal with real problems. This way the student can interact while learning and acquire knowledge that promotes his or her autonomy.

What advantages do occur in this learning model? Andragogics is the science behind which learning practice works best for adult students. The Knowles model is based on the following items:

  • Necessity to know: adults need to know why they should learn something and what's their advantage in acquiring this knowledge; adults need to see a clear necessity in learning something.
  • Self-concept of the apprentice: adults live self-dependent, they are responsible for their decisions and life: this is why the want to be treated as independent grown-ups. 
  • Existing experience: education of adults should always respect the existing experiences. This is why teaching techniques that take personal differences into account are more appropriate for further education.
  • Disposition to learn: adults know what they want to learn and try to learn in their daily life if the situation allows them to do so.
  • Orientation of content: for adults it's easier to learn using a practical and daily routine context approach. Knowledge should be transmitted in a way that the adult students can apply their knowledge the next day at work, for example.
  • Motivation: the motivation of adults is based mainly on everyday and personal values, like self-esteem, quality of life, personal satisfaction, development.



What is the best age to learn a new language?

Most people certainly would say, the earlier, the better.

  • Pizzolato (1995) - adult students show limitations learning grammatical, lexical terms, both in writting and in speech. There is a time span relative to age, in which some circumstances are better for the development of a certain type of behavior and its efficiency decreases with the years passing by. Adulthood reduces basic skills that promote the development of a certain type of behavior. 
  • Meisel (1993) - the acquisition of a language after adolescence, is no longer a function of universal grammar, but a cognitive process of learning new skills. This explains petrifications and grammatical judgements.
  • Selinker (1972) - the student tends to search for syntactic, semantic and phonological parameters between the target language and the mother tongue. With this, inadequacies and mistakes can be internalized and become permanent, even in the case of students who are at more advanced levels of learning.
  • Seliger (1978) - adds that the loss of brain plasticity implies a more encyclopaedic learning after puberty.
  • Lenneberg (1967) - seeks biological bases in favor of the "critical period" for language acquisition and states that after puberty, the capacity for self-organization and adjustment to the psychological demands of verbal behavior declines rapidly. The brain behaves as if it had been fixed that way, and the primary and basic skills not previously acquired usually remain deficient until the end of life.



Theories about the best age for learning a foreign language are very controversial, there is no consensus. However research and experience has shown that older students can achieve a high level of proficiency since learning a new language is not an obligation demanded by the school or family, but a self-motivated option.

What's the motivation for adults to learn a new language?

It is important to identify what motivation led the adult to learn a language since motivation is an important factor in the process of acquiring a new language. All learning results from three types of motivation:

  • Extrinsic - aims to integrate the student into the culture of the native speaker of the language he wants to learn.
  • Intrinsic - depends on the specific, personal aspects of each individual.
  • Instrumental - created and guaranteed by the functional reason of an exercise or a professional career.

It is worth remembering that if there is no need, there will be no motivation and the unmotivated student won't have any satisfaction with his or her studies.


According to Helena Confortin, author of “O aprendizado de língua estrangeira por adultos: reflexões necessárias“ (Foreign language learning by adults: necessary considerations), to which we refer in this article, the age factor is to be regarded as a negative influence in the learning process. The greatest difficulties (auditory comprehension, fluency and production of texts) are little explored and practiced in the classroom due to the use of the affective filter (mental block that prevents the learner from fully using the understandable input for language acquisition) by the students. As a result, foreign language courses for adults focus more on the instrumental method (reading and writing).

Although the author's conclusion is not very promising, it is worth noting that the brain maintains plasticity and that we are apt to learn throughout life. It may be that we don't have and will never reach perfect pronunciation, but we have knowledge from situations experienced in daily life that help us learn.

Another advantage is the metalinguistic knowledge of our mother tongue. We not only know the structure, but also its application and use. In addition, we have a maturity that helps us to predict, relate and transfer patterns of human development.

Studying is work, requires discipline, organization, motivation and responsibility ... and this is true for any age! Being an adult is no obstacle when you want to learn a language!

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Thank you for reading this!

Wilgen and the alugha team!




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