You're not too old

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You're not too old

I'll learn Japanese in Japan

No geek is an island 

Don't become Japanese

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You're not too old
You're just ageist

There is a long-standing theory that a person can't learn a second language perfectly unless they start learning it by a certain age. Start at 5, you'll learn it perfectly; start at 15, you're damned for life. This is referred to as the "critical period hypothesis"; the period in which you start learning the language is critically important to the long-term outcome.

Now I don't want to go into this theory in detail here suffice to say that it's a only a theory. A theory is someone's story about how something might work; it is not necessarily truth. Furthermore, the critical period hypothesis has a long-standing history of being poorly tested when it comes to second language learning.

Let me give you an example of poorly constructed research. (Note: This is a hypothetical example that I'm making up on the fly to get you thinking and to make a point. The conclusions are accurate, however, and based on a study I read in 2000 but can't find at the moment. You'd be daft to cite this.)

You take two groups of people matched for age, education and other factors thought to contribute to language performance. (When I say "matched", what I mean is that there is statistically no significant differences between the two groups on these factors. Group A has as many older people as Group B. They both have similar numbers of university graduates, plumbers, yodelers and so on.)

However, you've gone out of your way to make sure there is one difference between the two groups because it's something you want to examine. Namely, one group comprises people who started learning Japanese at age 10 while the other has people who began at age 20. You want to test (one variant of) the "critical period hypothesis", that is, that people who started learning a second language when they were younger are better than those who started when they were older.

A language test here, a statistical test there and, lo and behold, that's what you find. Group A is better at Japanese than Group B. Case closed, right? Not so quick.

What you (and many researchers in the past) have failed to account for is that, because the groups are matched for age, the group who started learning Japanese at age 10 will have actually been learning Japanese for 10 years longer than the other group.

When you take this into account and redo the calculations, many of the differences between the two groups disappear. The better performance of the first group is not due to the fact they were younger when they started as you had initially thought. It's because they've been at it longer.

So what's your point doogooroo? 

The jury's still out on the critical period hypothesis when it comes to learning a second language. One thing I'm fairly sure about, though, is that people routinely underestimate the amount of time it takes to learn a language.

Mastering a language takes a hell of a lot of time. This point bears repetition.

Mastering a language takes a shitload of time.

Get the message? Good.

You need to find the time and use it well. It's the hard yards you put in in your own time using techniques that work that is key. It doesn't require that you be under 5 and experiencing a critical period so let's give up that little myth, okay?

Those grey hairs are not an excuse to give up on learning Japanese. You may choose to direct your time elsewhere - mortgage repayments, the pursuit of love, reading xkcd, etc - but that's a different story. Just give up the "I'm too old" mantra because I'm fairly confident it's a load of crap.

Today's take home message is:

  1. Find time
  2. Use it well