I was once taught in a college class that kids are more able to absorb languages, even multiple at the same time with little confusion. And then for whatever reason once they reach 12 years old, new learning becomes slower, not as “fast tracked”. So I took it to heart. It sort of makes sense I guess, we all know that kids learn things fast in school and even for myself I’ve retained a lot of Thai vocabulary from my schooling years, but haven’t made large leaps ever since. I made a mental note that when I have kids, I’ll try to cram as much language into their tiny brains as possible.
So then you know, I’ve been “trying” to learn Chinese, but it’s been ridiculously slow. What little Chinese I’ve retained rarely reaches my lips unless I already know that I’m going to chime in with something that’s about 300% relevant, or when I’m flying high on alcohol (aka “confidence juice”). I found this to be similar with everyone I meet here in opposite – many local Chinese people know English from their schooling, but never get the chance to use it until they run into me. They are too quiet or shy to speak until there’s an easy context or, you know, beer.
So then I watched some video or article or whatever giving tips about language learning. It might have been a video from one of those miraculous people who can speak a dozen languages (where on earth do they get the time?). His tip was to just do it, speak it, practice, don’t be afraid to make mistakes etc.
A light bulb went off in my head (rare for me, I know) as I made a connection. Okay, so this guy was totally right – to get better at something, you have to practice. That goes without saying. So what have I been doing? Well, not practicing. But why not? To be honest, I don’t practice speaking Chinese aloud because I don’t want to sound like an idiot. Well, thinking about childhood, at what age is it when we start to worry about sounding like idiots? Adolescence. Puberty. That whole awkward entry into the teen years, when suddenly it matters who we eat with at lunch, how cool or uncool we dress, and what noises come out of our mouths – comprehensible or otherwise.
In conclusion, don’t believe that there’s a sudden black magic “language stupidity roadblock” that swoops in after the age of 12. That’s just the age when we start to imagine how embarrassing it might feel to botch your grammar in front of a room full of Spanish 101 classmates.
How successful you are at learning languages is really connected to how willing you are to make mistakes. Age isn’t an excuse.