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Parlez-vous anything at all?

Our blog post last week started us thinking about learning languages. David’s experience in Finland clearly challenges the old adage that the best time to learn a language is when you are young. Most of us have a dream to learn a second language, with, say, romantic ideas of sipping Prosecco on a veranda overlooking Lake Como as the sun sets, fluently speaking Italian with the hotel host. However, as one gets older, it becomes clear that new skills are only learnt as a necessity: we attend training courses to improve our work skills; we attend an evening course on car maintenance so we don’t feel so lost when our car breaks down; we attend ante-natal classes so we can be somewhat prepared when the baby arrives. Learning a language tends to be something that is not vital to our day to day survival, so perhaps this is why it remains, for most of us, a dream.

When one is little, the body and brain are firing on all cylinders to learn and advance. As a toddler begins to grasp language, he can relate everything he hears to the new experiences he is going through, so he is in the perfect position to absorb a second (or a third!) language. However, as one gets older, the connection of language and experience is not as fresh and eye-opening and so learning another language takes effort, a little more effort than we are perhaps willing to make.

A few years ago, Shirley and I had a year’s worth of weekly Russian lessons with one of our tutors (thank you, Alexandr) and despite having a degree in Spanish (along with a decent level in French), I really struggled to pick up the language. I comforted myself with the belief that one hour a week was just not enough learning time (this was better than succumbing to the horrific realisation that I had lost all my linguistic ability). At a recent induction session, one of our tutors, Matthew, pointed out that as one gets older, the brain stops trying to remember – the neural pathways for our thoughts and experiences are already so established that it takes a lot of effort to create new memories. So perhaps my old(ish) brain let me down during our Russian lessons. Or perhaps I just wasn’t working my brain well enough for it to be able to take everything on board.

The difficulty in learning languages is highlighted by the drop in numbers of students applying for non-European language degrees as reported by the Times Educational Supplement the number has fallen by more than a third in the past three years; similarly, applications for European language programmes dropped by 16.7%. As Matthew mentioned perhaps as we become older (or lazier), our brains find it harder to store new information and this in particular is to blame for the decline in students wanting to take language courses. But as the Guardian columnist, Molly Pierce, writes, it is integral for UK students to learn languages in order for the economy to survive as business becomes increasingly globalised.

To let you in on a secret, David has a strong linguistic background having studied French and German up to degree level – so the ordinary learner on the street might feel what David accomplished is out of the ordinary. However, what David’s experiment does show is that with the right basics (a solid understanding of how language works), the time to devote to the task and the desire to succeed, something that at first might seem impossible, is actually achievable.

Lucy Cawkwell

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