Can Anyone Learn a Second Language? (Solved!)



Learning a second language is recognized as being one of the best things you can do for yourself to help encourage strong brain function and communicate with others around the world. Despite this, many people may have difficulties learning a second language as an adult.

Anyone can learn a second language regardless of age, ability, or I.Q. While some people may find it easier than others to learn a second language, there are language teaching methods available that make learning a second language easier for you no matter your particular circumstance in life. 

Learning a second language doesn’t have to be frustrating, because our brains are already prewired to do it. Learning a language has much more to do with fortitude than IQ. Keep reading to learn more about how people acquire a second language throughout their life and how anyone can pull it off with practice. 

Can Babies Learn a Second Language?


Babies and toddlers pick up secondary languages more easily than any other demographic of humans. This is because for the first few years of life, a human brain is extremely adaptable to absorbing new information—this is a concept known as neuroplasticity (Source: Indian Journal of Pediatrics).

The more neuroplasticity a person has, the more able their brain is to adjust to new stimuli in the environment and react accordingly. 

When it comes to learning a second language, babies are already set up for success because their brains are focused on learning their primary language.

Baby brains can absorb syntax, structure, and other subtle areas of language easily that can be more difficult for people to pick up in a second language once they are grown. And they do it without any explanations. Ever see a baby doing grammar practice?

Can Babies Learn Two Languages at Once?


One of the major worries that people might have when introducing their baby or toddler to a second language is that it might cause them to become behind or confused about their primary language. The argument is that the child will find it harder to learn either language by learning both at once. 

The good news is that this is false! Science shows us that linguistic code-switching (or learning aspects of different languages at the same time) is ingrained in the human brain and is especially active in infancy. Many babies around the world are raised in multilingual households from birth. (Source: The Conversation

If you would like to learn more about how our brains can learn two languages simultaneously, see my article here.

When to Introduce a Baby to a Second Language


A baby should be introduced to their second language as early as possible for it to have the most effect, especially those languages that contain difficult sounds to mimic. (I’ve written more about when to teach a baby a second language here.)

A baby’s ability to absorb new linguistic information begins to narrow down at around 10 months of age, which means ideally parents should begin teaching their child a second language well before that developmental milestone. (Source: Parents.com)

For older babies and toddlers, enrolling a child in a second language class designed for that age group can help the child learn a second language more easily, especially if their parents are not fluent in the second language they’re wanting to teach. 

How Long Does it Take Babies to Learn Two Languages?


If babies are taught a second language from birth along with their first language, they should be able to pick it up just as well. In other words, it takes a baby just as long to learn their second language as it does for them to learn their first, and a child who is fluent in English by three or four who has been raised bilingual should have that fluency in their second language too. 

There is something to the idea that it slight delays in both languages occur for some children in a bilingual environment from birth. The good news is that this quickly is corrected as they grow and soon they are not only on level with their peers in one language, but now it happens in both!

Can Children Learn a Second Language?


For parents who want to raise their children bilingual but missed the window of infancy and toddlerhood to teach them, they still have the opportunity to give their kids the chance to learn another language.

After infancy, the next best developmental stage to teach a child a second language is between the age of four and seven. (For more on teaching a child a second language, go here to an article where I’ve address it in detail) 

This age period represents a developmental window for children to be able to pick up a wide variety of skills and knowledge easily, not just language. At this age, a child’s brain is growing and developing at a rapid rate, and teaching language at this age takes advantage of that neuroplasticity. 

Can Adults Learn a Second Language? 


Ironically, adults are often the ones who are most desperate to pick up a second language, yet this is also the demographic that has the most difficulty with it. By the time the adult brain has matured in their early twenties, most of their deep linguistic knowledge has already been hardwired. Plus adults have so much more on their plate at this stage in life!

Does this mean that adults can’t learn second languages effectively? The short answer is ‘no’, but read on to find out more.

Why Is It Hard for Adults to Learn a Second Language? 


As mentioned earlier, at ten months of age, the human brain begins to narrow linguistic learning to help eliminate noises made by people it doesn’t interpret as translatable language. This means the older a child gets, the more difficult it can be for them to pick up the more subtle structures of a second language that native speakers understand intuitively.

The reason has to do with how human memory works. There are two basic types of human memory: declarative memory and procedural memory. An easy way to think of them is to think of software apps that you install on your phone versus apps that come installed. 

Language learning in infancy and childhood depends on procedural memory to help babies absorb the rules of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary by osmosis. But adults are forced to depend on declarative memory (rote memorization) to learn the vocabulary and syntax of a second language. At this point in their lives, procedural memory for linguistics falls on the backburner. (Source: LiveScience)

Can Adults Benefit from Learning a Second Language? 


Anyone can benefit from a second language, but adults are the ones capable of benefiting the most professionally. Bilingual people are highly sought-after in many different fields and industries. In some cases, knowing a foreign language or two can even help you negotiate a higher salary. 

Because the benefits of learning a second or other language can greatly impact one’s life, I’ve written an article detailing the effects directly on English here and Spanish here.

Tips for Learning a Second Language as an Adult


Even though the adult age group is the hardest age group to pick up a second language in, not just because of the difficulty but because of the time involved, there are plenty of methods out there that can make the process less frustrating and painful. Here are some tips you can use to make learning a second language easier as an adult: 

  • Learn with others. Speaking language is a social skill, and it’s easier to pick up when you are surrounded by other people who are speaking the same language that you’re trying to learn. Learning with others also adds an enjoyable side to the hobby of foreign language that makes an individual more motivated to engage with it.
  • Listen to the language. Only so much language can be learned from memorizing written vocabulary and syntax. Hearing a spoken language is a crucial part of being able to pronounce words correctly and pick up other subtle cues in a second language. Immersion language courses teach a second language by immersing students in a classroom where they speak it exclusively. This Living Language Spanish edition comes highly recommended on Amazon.
  • Focus on relevance. If you’re wanting to be able to read a foreign newspaper, you’re going to need to pick up a different vocabulary in a second language than you would if you’re trying to go on a trip abroad. Focusing your vocabulary memorization on words and phrases that you anticipate having to read or write can improve engagement with the material.
  • Break sessions down into short intervals. Keep foreign language lessons frequent but under twenty minutes. This can help adults retain the most amount of information from the lesson in their long-term memory. The longer a lesson is, the shorter the attention span becomes and the less chance there is to retain the information.
  • Review information regularly. Going back over old foreign language material even though you’ve already learned the grammar and vocabulary helps reinforce it. This makes it more likely that a person will be able to recall it in a conversation.
  • Use subtitles and listen to media in a foreign language. Putting a favorite TV show on Netflix in a foreign language and putting the subtitles of your primary language on the screen can help you associate the two languages using both auditory and visual information. 

Learning a second language can be harder as an adult because adults have so many other responsibilities competing for their free time, but learning a second language can be great for someone’s resume and their mental abilities. 

Can Senior Citizens Learn a Second Language?


In many ways, senior citizens have some advantages over younger adults when it comes to learning a second language. The biggest of these is the additional free time that retirement gives older people to pursue scholastic pursuits like language learning. They are also able to take advantage of extra money to dedicate to language classes in many cases. 

Can Seniors Benefit from Learning a Second Language? 


Learning a second language in retirement has many benefits for senior citizens. Here are just a few of the advantages seniors can enjoy: 

  • Travel: Retirees have more time to travel to international countries than younger adults, and learning a second language can be a good way for seniors to feel more comfortable when they’re traveling abroad. It’s also a good way for traveling seniors to be able to better immerse themselves in the cultures they’re visiting.
  • Mental stimulation: It can be difficult for senior citizens to keep their brains engaged and healthy as they get older, with many falling back on old habits like watching hours of television. This can cause mental degradation and can help contribute to dementia. Contrary to that, learning a second language helps encourage neuroplasticity and keeps senior minds active.
  • Decision making: Learning a second language has been proven to help improve a person’s decision-making skills. (Source: Scientific American) Since this is a skill that can sometimes deteriorate as a person becomes older, learning a second language is a good way to help senior citizens make decisions for themselves and remain independent.
  • Vocabulary: In some ways, senior citizens have an advantage in learning a second language over younger people because their brains possess the largest vocabularies. This preset vocabulary pool makes it easier to pick up the vocabulary of other languages. (Source: AARP)
  • Problem-solving: One of the great things for senior citizens is that learning a second language actually makes you smarter. Learning a second language forces the brain to work harder. Even though the brain isn’t a muscle, it does become stronger when it is exposed to exercises that expand neuroplasticity.
  • Boredom alleviation: Many senior citizens get bored and lonely as they grow more isolated in old age, and learning a second language can be a great way to introduce themselves to new people. A second language allows senior citizens to connect socially with twice as many people. With the advances of technology, this means they can talk to people all over the world. 

Seniors aren’t just well-suited for learning a second language, they’re usually in one of the best positions in life to enjoy it. For senior citizens who are looking for something to help occupy their time and keep their minds sharp, learning a second language is a perfect hobby. 

Can Deaf and Blind People Learn a Second Language?


Since people who are deaf can’t hear, some may be curious whether they are capable of picking up a second language. The answer is yes, of course! Like any other person, the deaf and the blind have the same ability to learn a second language. The only significant difference is that adjustments have to be made for their learning. 

To learn a second language, a deaf person can study written vocabulary and grammar. When it comes to speaking the language, things can be a little more difficult, as they are not able to hear the language spoken. This means that they have to depend on written phonetic transcriptions to practice the words and solicit feedback on pronunciation. (Source: Audio Accessibility)

For people who are blind, foreign language textbooks have to be transcribed into Braille so that they can pick up vocabulary and grammar. However, they have an advantage in being able to hear the words of the language being spoken. Blind people also have more brain capacity dedicated to interpreting sounds than the average person, which makes them astute students of foreign language sounds. (Source: The Conversation)

Do You Have to Be Smart to Learn a Second Language? 


It helps to have a good memory to learn a second language when it comes to accumulating a strong vocabulary and knowing the grammatical rules, but much of learning a second language is exposure and listening to it.These are parts of the brain dictated by procedural memory, which doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence but is instead a way of how the brain responds to stimuli. 

Everyone is born with the inherent ability to pick up human language, even languages that are different than their own. But there are some people who feel that they can’t learn a second language. Here are some of the frustrations that people tend to run into: 

  • Auditory processing disorder: Some students may have auditory processing disorder, which is a developmental condition that makes it difficult for people to understand spoken language. This condition affects 5% of the population and can lead to difficulties distinguishing similar sounds or noises in a crowded environment. (Source: WebMD)
  • Thinking in their mother tongue: This is a hard habit to break for people learning a second language since the first impulse of a person hearing a foreign language is to translate it in their head. Foreign language students are encouraged to think in their second language as well as write and speak it.
  • Making foreign language lessons too long: Most scientific studies gauge that the extent of the human attention span only goes to twenty minutes. (Source: Gutenburg Technology) This means that any information crammed past that twenty-minute mark has a high likelihood of being forgotten when it is time for review later. Keep lessons short to keep retention high.
  • Lack of immersion: Limiting foreign language studies to a class once or twice a week won’t give you the kind of background you need to become fluent in a second language. Instead, seek out foreign newspapers, television, and other media to help absorb as much of the language as possible just by hearing it, reading the words, and seeing people speak it. 

It is not true that intelligent people may be able to pick up a second language more quickly. Though they may have a better memory for vocabulary and grammar, much of what goes into language learning is repetition and immersion, which is not tied to I.Q. Repetition and immersion are methods that can be utilized by anyone, whether you are a rocket scientist, musician, or construction worker.

The Final Talking Point on Can Anyone Learn a Second Language?


No matter what age a person is, they are never too young or old to learn how to speak a second language. As well, people with disabilities can learn a second language.

The methods that each group of people has to use to learn a second language may change depending on their age and abilities since brains develop differently, but the brain is amazingly efficient at picking up languages no matter who you are. As well, success to learning a second or other language is really tied to motivation more than anything.

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

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