Is it too Late to Learn Spanish?

That dreaded 8 am Spanish class.  Nothing is worse for me than waking up early to struggle to memorize tedious endings to verbs and vocabulary words.  Times like these I am extremely jealous of anyone who lived in a multi-language home growing up.  Key words in there were growing up.  Now why does it seem that kids raised around two languages seem to pick them both up with extreme ease, no memorizing and studying?  It always seemed to be common sense that children picked up languages, like most other concepts, more quickly than adults or even teenagers, but why?  I bet you do not really remember learning English.  It almost seemed as natural as learning to walk.  You did not have to overthink grammar rules too much (except for like first grade), but it’s nothing compared to trying to learn Spanish. The answer to the question probably has something to do with brain development.


In 1967, Lenneberg formed a hypothesis that our brain’s only had a critical frame where language was easiest to acquire.  This still seems to remain the popular belief and observation today, as I stated in the opening.  People generally assume that children process and retain a second language much easier than adults can.  This is definitely a hard thing to study, especially keeping all the third variables that would affect the null hypothesis that children learn second languages faster, including how often the language is exposed to them, and how focused the adults are to learning it considered they face many more distractions/responsibilities compared to a child.



Going back to Lenneberg, most studies that agree with the argument that youth is better for language learning agree that there are neuromuscular mechanisms that work better early on in youth to process information and make connections.  One scientist used brain scans to try to prove the point that the language capacity decreases with age.  Monika Schmid, a professor at the University of Essex, used an interesting experiment to measure the brains by scanning them.  She gave sentences with grammar mistakes to native speakers and people who learned it later in life as a second language. She found the people who learned later were less quickly to recognize small errors unlike the natives.  The age ranges in the observational study were not specified which led to the conclusion that there was no particular age that was best to learn.

Another small randomized observational study was conducted by Petitto, PhD.  This tiny study concluded the same thing as the first mentioned.  The kids who picked up the second earlier were better at it.  This study by Petitto also however noted that the kids learned better in their community through conversation, rather than in the classroom.  Both of these observational studies agreed that the younger the better.

Contrary Trial

A contrary experimental trial was performed right here at Penn State.  This trial provided different results than the previous two mentioned.  The researchers conducted a brain scan on 39 English speakers.  The speakers then went through lessons in mandarin and after 6 weeks the brains were scanned again.  The results showed brains with more functional changes and greater activity than they assumed from a 6-week course.  This was definitely evidence against the argument: aging results in more difficulty learning the language.  The researchers suggest the brain was more plastic than they thought which means it has a greater ability to learn new things and form more of those connections associated with learning a new language.


What do the results of these small observational and experimental studies say?  I keep stressing small because every one of these trials was indeed very small, with the most being only over 100 people.  The p-values were definitely high which could have resulted in two false negatives and a false positive.  However, these do suggest that scientists are heading in the right direction while studying the brain If they can even pick up tiny functionalities like this with scans.  The answer is definitely looming, and with larger trials the p-values can conclude these findings less likely due to chance.

Discovery News on Language Acquisition



Study Outlined on PLOS ONE

European Parliament


Penn State University

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5 thoughts on “Is it too Late to Learn Spanish?

  1. Monica Lynn Powell

    Amen! to this article. Languages have always been really difficult for me. I appreciated how you looked at multiple studies, even studies that weren’t saying the same things. You pulled in concepts from class effortlessly and that really enhanced your article. There are so many questions running through my head. Can people be born with small language capacity?….I guess that would make any language hard, even your native one. Are certain languages actually easier to learn than others or is that just a personal preference? I took German in high school and I am just starting Spanish now. So far I think Spanish is easier, is that just my brain? Hopefully it’s not too late to learn Spanish because I need to! Here’s an article explaining why some languages are easier or harder for others.

  2. Xueyao Cao

    Hi Alex, I am bilingual but I feel the pain as well when I started learning Spanish in my high school. Sometimes people think that I should learn a new language faster than the others since I already have the experiences, but the truth was I learnt them when I was a child so I couldn’t recall any facts about learning them systematically. I actually agree with the conclusion in the contrary trial, which brain plasticity not only appear during a child’s early age, but also lasted for a long time. Although we might adapt new things slower compared to a child, we could still learn new things. I found out a Ted talk video that talks about brain plasticity, which I find it really helpful and really easy to understand:

  3. Patrick James Mcgovern

    This is really interesting! I have never thought about language like this, I mean in relation to age. It reminds me of when I started high school Spanish my freshmen year and my mom was asking me how to use a translator app. I taught her the basics, but also attempted to teach her some simple phrases and structures. Her main issues were with forms and “choices” made by language creators that could have made it easier.

    I thought this was weird because my mom has lived in Arizona most of her life and has been around Spanish for a long time. Do you think that adults are less likely to learn a new language because they get used to their own over the years? I’m starting to think that this might be a huge factor as I know the more I grow the less I am able to handle Spanish easily.

  4. Abigail Edwards


    I found this to be a very interesting read, becuase I too am struggling to learn a new language! I am a freshman in college, trying to learn french. I have never taken french in my life and trust me, this first semester has not been a walk in the park. As you said in your background paragraph, adults are more distracted and have other things in life that require our attention. I know that if I was majoring in francophone studies and was able to devote all my time and attention to learning french, I would be fluent much sooner. Here is an article, , that pertains to this topic. Adrian Black explains his experience in learning a new language at the age of fifty. In conclusion, I think that the difficulty level of learning a new language goes up with age, but like you said, this could be due to many third variables.


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