English culture, myths and assignments

J van de Wetering, s1026220


Why is learning a language harder as we get older?

It is common belief that older people learn harder than younger people do.  Does this common belief have foundation in facts or a myth like many other myths? In this essay, we will try to find out if a language is harder to learn as we get older or that it makes no difference between the young and the elderly. A few questions must be answered before we can conclude our findings.


Do older people learn at a slower rate than young people do?

Do older people learn at a slower rate than young people do or not? There is increasing evidence that adults can learn a language just as fast as children can. A study in 2003 showed that young children did not learn faster than that the elderly could learn. In fact, adults have certain advantages that children do not have. Adults have more and practiced strategies, a wider vocabulary in their native language, a greater memory capacity and they are more likely to have experience with other languages. All these advantages improve the learning capacity of adults (McPherson, 2003). Another fact that show children do not learn that fast is show in the table below .

Tabel 1 Paul blooms "How children learn the meaning of words" (Bloom, 2000)


Word per day

12-16 months


16-23 months


23-30 Months


30 Months - 6 years


6 years - 8 years


8 years - 10 years


Scientific articles conclude that cognitive functions such as abilities to activate, represent, maintain, focus and information processing decline with age (Li, Linderberger, & Sikstrom, 2001). De keyser interpreted from a research he conducted in 2000 that there were certain ages in which skills could be learned and after these ages, the skills could be acquired much slower because everybody loses the mental equipment for the implicit induction (Munoz, 2006).

Strong evidence from another research shows that the elderly have a big advantage over children and can learn a second language much easier the fact that the elder have a bigger vocabulary and more techniques to learn gave them this advantage (Munoz, Age and the Rate of Foreign Language Learning, 2006). Older people need more time to recall things but this is due the fact that they have much information to scan thru (Knapton, 2014)

A study with 24 Israeli students aged 8, 12 and 21 were given ten daily lessons in a language. The young adults were a lot faster than the other groups (McPherson, Why-learning-harder-we-get-older, 2011).



Where does the phenomenon come from?

Society has developed myths, stereotypes and misunderstandings about people as the age. Many people have general statements about elderly who are not fact based. Statements on actions, character and desires of older people are common every day and create myths such as slower learning. Society puts a greater value on youth than aging. Media strengthen the idea that young is good and old is bad.

People who have little contact with elderly are more likely to have these judgements about elderly than those who have contact with their grandparents. Their influence on young people stops young people from becoming close to an older person as they have little to offer in their opinion.

Another reason for this phenomenon is due to the scarce information about this phenomenon. As the size of the elderly grows so does interest in the research of this subject. (services, 2014)


The term “ageism” was coined by Robert Butler, M.D., in 1968. Dr. Butler is a geriatrician who saw that society had developed myths, stereotypes and misunderstandings about people as they age.

Butler felt ageism is a form of bigotry and that it is a very serious national problem. He felt that the myths and stereotypes of aging are so deeply ingrained in our society it will be very hard to change. Over the years a number of things may help reduce the prejudices of aging. The elderly population is growing rapidly in our nation. As the numbers increase, so will their power and influence over politics, society and economics. More youth will have contact with older members of society. The elderly themselves will then have the opportunity to help eliminate ageism.



My conclusion after reviewing the facts is that the elder do not learn a second language slower and the statement that they do is wrong and outdated. When elder use the right skills they learn faster than younger do. The phenomenon is founded on myths, stereotypes and misunderstanding of elder people. Research shows that there is no real difference between learning rates and that elder even have advantages over the young when learning a second language.




Bloom, P. (2000). How Children Learn the Meanings of Words. MIT Press .


Darwin, C. (1871). The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. London: John Murray, Albemarle street.

Knapton, S. (2014, January 20). Brains of elderly slow because they know so much. Opgeroepen op July 19, 2014, van Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/10584927/Brains-of-elderly-slow-because-they-know-so-much.html

Li, S.-C., Linderberger, U., & Sikstrom, S. (2001). Aging cognition: from neuromodulation to representation. Elsevier Science Ltd .

McPherson, F. (2003). Children second language. Opgeroepen op July 19, 2014, van Memory-key: http://www.memory-key.com/improving/strategies/language/children-second-language

McPherson, F. (2011, September 17). Why-learning-harder-we-get-older. Opgeroepen op July 19, 2014, van Memory-key: http://www.memory-key.com/blog/why-learning-harder-we-get-older

Munoz, C. (2006). Age and the Rate of Foreign Language Learning. In C. Munoz, Age and the Rate of Foreign Language Learning (p. 5). Great Britain: Cromwell press Ltd.

Munoz, C. (2006). Age and the Rate of Foreign Language Learning. In C. Munoz, Age and the Rate of Foreign Language Learning (p. 11). Great Britain: Cromwell press Ltd.


services, H. (2014). Myths and stereotypes of aging. Oregon: Oregon department of human services.

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