Curiosity: Why is it so hard to learn new languages as an adult?

Brandon Paykamian • Mar 4, 2018 at 8:15 AM

In my last column, I touched on the curiosity of children and their willingness to learn new things rapidly, and it got me thinking about when I tried to relearn Farsi a few years ago. 

I found the process quite difficult, despite being raised bilingually in my earlier years. With less and less exposure and application as I spent more time with my English-speaking mother, I decided it was time to go back to learning the language that my father’s side of the family primarily speaks.

I spent hours each week trying to pick it back up, but I couldn’t seem to do it. I wondered why it was so much easier to pick up on new things when I was younger. I was just so frustrated that I wasn’t able to pick up where I left off and progress at the level I’ve been told I had before. 

With my abilities as a musician, the story is similar. I never forgot how to play drums — I play just about every week. But over the years, I haven’t experienced a surge in my technical abilities compared to the progress I made from ages 12-16. It was like reaching a plateau where my ability to progress seemed to level-off. 

While it is possible for adults to learn new languages and new skills, there is a scientific explanation for why we don’t learn some things as fast as children, according to some of the psychological research I’ve encountered. 

Most children “think outside the box” as their brains develop. Our working memory is stored in our prefrontal cortex, and once that part of the brain becomes fully developed in adulthood, we experience what is called “functional fixedness,” a cognitive bias that basically causes us to view things more conventionally.

Without pre-existing knowledge of what things are used for or how concepts are traditionally grasped, healthy children’s brains are able to make connections faster. In short, their brains give them an ability to be inventive and flexible and are better-suited for learning; our adult brains are mainly for performing tasks.

At least this is what I’ve learned as I’ve delved into the topic — I’m definitely no expert.

But let’s put it this way, though. It was probably easier for me to learn a second language as I first learned to communicate in general because I had no pre-existing knowledge of language compared to my current understanding of language. 

My current knowledge of the English language has definitely made learning Farsi — a language that isn’t Latin-based, has a completely different alphabet and writes from right to left — fairly difficult. Even though I started to learn it side-by-side with English at one point, it now feels like coloring outside the lines, so to speak. 

Maybe I will get back to where I am able to learn to speak Farsi on a conversational level. I know it is still doable, and I know I shouldn’t doubt myself.

But it’ll probably take more time than it did when I was very young, according to the science.  

Email Brandon Paykamian at [email protected] Follow Brandon Paykamian on Twitter at @PaykamianJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/PaykamianJCP.

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