Learning a new language in your 30s
Or how I’ve been learning German for four years and still stuck at A2-B1 level
Does your brain become less receptive to new information as you get older? It’s not as malleable, and new things just don’t stick as well as they used to? I’ve read this somewhere…
The reality is, I have been learning new languages since high school (four years of Spanish), I started Italian during my semester abroad in Milan, and once I hit 30, I started learning French for 1.5 years while living in Luxembourg.
Do I see a clear difference in how well I absorbed the information in each stage of my life? Not really.
I should caveat that I’m naturally interested in learning new languages — it feels like a key to unlocking a new world. I’m also a what you’d call a book-smart-overachieving-good-student, so I love studying and feel that I learn best with a lot of homework (Yes I’m one of those fun people who will remind the teacher that they forgot to assign homework…).
Despite being a good learner and combined total of 6 years of learning across these languages, I’m useless in a conversation in Spanish, French, or Italian. I can get by reading things, but that only adds to the frustration. The sense that I know something but no words are coming out of my mouth. That all those hours of studying were for nothing, only a muddle mess buried in my brain, never to see the light of day.
If I really think about it though, I actually know exactly what the problem is. I don’t speak the language enough. I learned Spanish in high school and never used it. I learned Italian in Milan and then hung out with only English speaking exchange students. They say practice makes perfect, and the only practice I ever did was in the text books. So it makes sense that I can get by reading these languages, but not speaking.
That begs the question — why don’t I speak it? And quite frankly, the answer is easy too (the benefits of self awareness in your 30s?) — it’s damn uncomfortable. You are putting yourself out there, under the judgement of strangers, speaking like a child, using the wrong words.
My rational brain knows that there is nothing wrong with this, and that people know that I’m learning and wouldn’t really judge me for it. Even if they did, who cares?? What’s important is that I get to use the language and improve. Never mind what the airport security guy thinks.
But my default brain is not so wise, and every time someone asks me “Deutsche oder Englisch?” I hesitantly reply “Englisch ist besser”. Is English really better though? In most of these minor interactions, I can probably get by just fine in German. I just need to have a little faith in myself, throw my “shyness” (ok it’s really shame) out the window, and just go for it.
In the end, age is not my enemy here. I did not manage to master Spanish at age 16 any better than I’m mastering German now at age 36. My brain works just fine, I just need to overcome the learned self-doubt and shame and put myself (and my broken German) out there.