For four semesters now, I’ve been chronicling my attempts to learn Spanish at community college classes. Not that I’ve taken four semesters of Spanish. I started with adult track night school courses that broke one semester into two semesters. Then I had to drop the class twice. So four semesters later, I have the equivalent of one semester of Spanish under my belt. This spring semester I decided to take a bold move: I would sign up for the next semester on the regular track. Yup, Spanish at double-time. Or at least double-time if you’ve been on the slow track.
Now I’m coming up against the horrible fact that what they say about your aging brain is true: as you get older — while your age and experience may give you an edge in some things — it’s tougher and tougher to learn languages. In fact, a Facebook friend posted this TED lecture by Patricia Kuhl of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington. The lecture is mostly about how babies learn language. But it included some disheartening statistics for the “late life language learner”.
In summery, the science shows that your critical language acquisition period is before Age Seven. Then there is a precipitous decline until Age Seventeen. I guess this chart is showing that you can hold somewhat steady at this nadir until you are around Age 39. After that, your brain doesn’t even make the chart, my friend. I would wager that scientists at the TED Conference can show you statistics that you are more likely to be hit by an asteroid made of flaming Gruyère cheese than you are to learn a new language after Forty.
I’m here as living proof of that theorem. I used to be great in languages. Really I did. My career goal at Age Seven was to be a UN Translator. Or maybe head of the UN where I would speak to each delegate in his or her native tongue. I started taking French in Second Grade, but I was exposed to other languages much earlier. My grandparents tell me that, when I came for extended visits, it wouldn’t be long before I was wandering around their immigrant neighborhood speaking Russian, Polish and Ukrainian. I remember my shock, years later in a film class watching an early Roman Polanski film, to realize that I was no longer reading the subtitles and was following along with the Polish dialogue. As school progressed, I took ever more languages: French, German and Latin.
As a new college graduate, I was being heavily recruited by the CIA. (And that’s a whole other blog post!) They were interested for two reasons: my father was a career Army officer with Top Secret clearance, so the paperwork on me would be easy. And they wanted to deploy my language ability. Their master plan was to send me and my French, German and Slavic language proficiency to the Naval Language School at Monterey. To learn Spanish. Then send me to Central America.
This was one of the few times my father stepped in on one of my choices. He said, “I’m not going to say I know what we’re doing in Central America, but I think you might want to explore other options before you decide on this one.” Other options did present themselves and I suppose I was saved from being killed by Nicaraguan Death Squads or getting mixed up with Ollie North in the Iran-Contra scandal. But I also missed my opportunity to learn Spanish. Too bad. Because apparently that brain window is now firmly shut.
I distinctly remember, with each language, that moment when suddenly things clicked and I was actually thinking in German or French or Polish (well not Latin, but still, I could get my way through Ovid at a respectable clip.)
This is not happening in Spanish and I suspect it never will. I thought it did the other day when I glanced up at a billboard in the Mission District (our most Hispanic neighborhood in San Francisco) and “read” the message without translating it. Then I realized that being able to comprehend “Me Gusta Cerveza Pacifico” is probably something any student on a drunk Spring Break weekend in Cabo can do after fifteen Jello shots.
So here I am, the hardest working student at Community College of San Francisco’s Spanish 2 night class and still flailing. As further proof of the importance of that early language window, my French, which I haven’t used for decades, is suddenly coming flooding back. In fact, more than once, when I’ve been called on to stand and speak on some topic such as what I did over the weekend or what I used to do on vacations as a little girl, the professor has had to interrupt me and tell me to stop speaking French. Last night, I spent more time on my midterm exam going back over my answers and taking out all the French words — complete with accents Grave and Aigu!
I just want you to know, that even though the language centers in my brain are now as mushy as bad refried beans, I’m going to stick it out. I’m determined that I’m going to learn Spanish and I’m bringing out all the tricks.
Yes, I’m going to be the person who bucks science and brain aging to learn a new language at an “advanced age.”
Look for me at the next TED Conference. I’ll be PowerPoint Slide Three of the follow-up language lecture by the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences. Now off to watch some telenovelas!