Too Old to Learn Gaelic?
A reader emailed me with this question:
Hello, I am interested in learning Gaelic. They stopped teaching it at secondary school the year we started, in 1959. I am also somewhat deaf and have to look at people’s mouths when they are speaking to me. Is it too late for me to learn Gaelic?
I’m so glad you asked this question. The short answer is: it is never too late to learn Gaelic!
I see that your question actually concerns two issues in relation to learning Gaelic: aging and hearing loss. I’ll discuss each of these issues in turn, starting with the question of aging.
Aging and Language Learning
The main concern I hear you expressing is whether it’s “too late” for you to learn a new language. The good news is that older brains can and do continue to learn – including language learning – even if they may do so a bit more slowly.
Researchers used to believe that the brain’s networks became fixed as people aged, but over the past 20 years, research has demonstrated that the brain does not stop changing and adapting with age. In other words, the brain is characterized by neuroplasticity, defined as “the capacity of the brain to change and form new neural connections.”
Dr. Eric Chudler, executive director of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering at the University of Washington, gives a more technical definition:
“Plasticity, or neuroplasticity, describes how experiences reorganize neural pathways in the brain. Long lasting functional changes in the brain occur when we learn new things or memorize new information. These changes in neural connections are what we call neuroplasticity.”
Chudler explains that developmental plasticity is the kind of plasticity shown by children’s brains which are still growing. Adults display ongoing plasticity in their learning and memory, however. Learning, even for adults, results in actual physical changes in the brain, including an increase in the number of synapses which transmit nerve signals.
Research has been showing that language learning is one of the kinds of learning that causes positive physical changes to the brain. In one study, adult English-speakers took an intensive 9-month Chinese-language course and the “integrity” of their white matter improved. Another study of a group of military interpreters showed that their hippocampus and other language-related areas of their brains actually increased in size after an intensive 3-month course.
When we engage in language learning we are building up the structures and forming new connections in our brains. The wonderful news is that these physical changes may also help protect your brain against the negative effects of aging, or at least delay these effects.
Canadian psychologist Ellen Bialystock’s research on bilinguals has found that when a group of lifelong bilinguals were compared to monolinguals, all other things being equal, the bilinguals experienced the onset of dementia symptoms 4 years later than the monolinguals. Her team’s study of Alzheimer’s patients confirmed that lifelong bilingualism appears to confer some protection against the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. A separate study in India by researchers from the University of Hyderabad and University of Edinburgh shows very similar conclusions.
We don’t yet know yet if the exact benefits found by Bialystock will apply to people who start the study of a second language later in life (as opposed to people who were lifelong bilinguals), but one study has found that bilingual people, including people who acquired a second language as adults, performed more strongly on tests of general intelligence and reading, even accounting for differences in baseline cognitive ability.
As well as the benefits related to aging brains, for adults in general there may be other advantages to learning another language. This journalist spoke to older adults learning a second language and found that they valued the opportunities for getting out of the house, connecting with others which eases isolation and loneliness, learning more about another culture, and for connecting with their own heritage.
There are other benefits to learning a language when you are older, in addition to positive changes in the brain. While our memories take a hit when we age, older adults have an advantage in learning that young people do not: we have learned how we learn. In other words, adults are better than young people at recognizing our tendencies and shortcomings and devising learning strategies around them. These kinds of skills are called metacognitive skills.
On a personal level I can attest to this in my dance classes – as an older amateur dance student, my short-term memory for a new sequence of dance moves is wretched. But I compensate for that by watching the practice videos that our teacher provides in between lessons, and repeating the moves until I can bypass my crummy short-term memory and get those moves into my long-term muscle memory. I’m not a quick study as far as dance, but I always do learn it in the end. I always used to think of myself as clumsy and not capable of dancing (and never got anything but reinforcement of that as a young adult), but for some reason I was still interested in it, and I’ve attended the classes regularly and stuck with it, and now I enjoy performing in two different groups for community events and charity.
These metacognitive skills can benefit adults in learning languages as well! As an adult you know what a language is – and as an older adult, you are probably one of the lucky ones who actually received grammatical instruction in school! You may also have learned another language in the past. So you know what the different parts of speech are and how to talk about them, what it’s like to learn a language, and what your personal strengths and weaknesses are. These will all help you as you study Gaelic.
As an older adult you may also have better motivation, focus, and discipline, and if you are retired, then you may have more time available for classes and study than you did when working full-time and/or raising a family.
If you started S1 (secondary one) in 1959 then by my calculation you are about 68 years old now. But whether you are in your 50s, 60s, 70s, or beyond, if learning Gaelic is something you want to do, then don’t let ideas about aging stop you!
Hearing Loss and Gaelic Language Learning
Now on to the second part of your question, about hearing impairment. Many people view hearing loss as an inevitable part of aging. It certainly does accompany aging for many people; however, I think that if you want to undertake the study of a new language, then hearing loss is best viewed as a separate problem, one that can be addressed with testing and technology.
If you are hearing impaired, then you may be missing out on more than you realize, both in Gaelic classes and in the rest of your life. I say this after observing people with hearing impairments in Gaelic classes over the years. The more that you cannot hear the teacher clearly – or even yourself – the more difficult it will be for you to hear grammar explanations, new vocabulary words, proper pronunciation, and the unique sounds of Gaelic.
If you want to take a Gaelic class, and you know that you have hearing issues, then I strongly recommend you to get your hearing professionally tested and take the advice of the specialist.
If you know that you’re hearing impaired but are reluctant to get a hearing aid, or you think that you get along just fine without one, let me tell you a story about my mother, who has been hearing impaired since the age of 40. She is completely deaf in her left ear, and profoundly to severely deaf in her right hear. She wears a hearing aid in her right ear only, and has done so now for over 30 years.
My mother says she can always spot another older person with a hearing impairment right away when she meets them. They lean forward with their “good ear,” they miss obvious social cues, or they simply withdraw and don’t participate in the conversation.
Getting outspoken in her old age, my mother has had a couple of impromptu conversations with other folks about this issue when she sees that they don’t wear hearing aids. She met one elderly couple at church and they all went out for lunch. After some small talk, she noticed the husband was hearing impaired. She leaned across the table to him and said, “Bill, are you hearing impaired?” Bill (a pseudonym) didn’t know what to say. My mother told him about her hearing impairment and asked if he had noticed that she wears a hearing aid. He hadn’t.
My mother said, “Nobody ever notices when you’re wearing a hearing aid! But if you’re not using one, you know you’re really missing a lot of what’s going on around you!” Meanwhile, Bill’s wife was sitting next to him nodding and saying “YES YES YES, haven’t I been telling you this, Bill!”
My mother continued, “Bill, don’t miss out on life! I’ll say to you what my boss said to me before I got my hearing aid. My hearing loss was getting to be a problem in my job, but I didn’t realize it. My boss called me into a private meeting and said, ‘Would you like people thinking you were ignoring them, didn’t know what was going on, or didn’t have the right answer to the question, or would you rather have them know that you have a hearing aid?’ So I went out and got a hearing aid right away. So Bill, everybody knows you’re deaf, why don’t you just get a hearing aid? It’ll turn your life around!”
Shortly afterward, Bill got a hearing aid for each ear. Sadly he’s passed away now, but whenever his widow sees my mother, she still thanks her for the happiness those hearing aids brought them in the final years of their marriage.
People take advantage of all kinds of advancing medical technologies in areas like knee and hip replacement. Hearing aid technology has also been steadily advancing for the past several decades. The advances in digital technology have even surpassed my mother’s profound to severe level of deafness.
Often people don’t have serious hearing loss, but guess what? Even lower levels of hearing loss in elderly adults have been linked to cognitive problems, everything from mild cognitive impairment to dementia. One study has found that hearing loss can speed up age-related cognitive decline. A different study seems to suggest that treating hearing impairment problems may actually help to reverse cognitive decline.
This is like the flipside of the brain plasticity described for language learning. Your brain is also plastic enough to adapt to receiving less sensory input, less language input, and less input from socialization with others… which results in cognitive impairment.
The best thing to do is to visit your doctor, get referred to a specialist, and get a proper hearing test. You need to find out how much and what kind of hearing loss you have. One set of tests will even measure how well you can hear and understand other people’s speech, which is directly relevant to Gaelic classes.
An online check is of course no substitute for a professional test and medical advice, but just to get a rough idea, Action on Hearing Loss (The Royal National Institute for Deaf People) has a free online hearing check.
Tips for Hearing-impaired Gaelic Students and Their Instructors
Bethany Riebock, a speech-language pathologist (SLP), gives a number of tips for getting the most from your language classes as a hearing-impaired student:
• Tell your teacher that you’re hearing impaired and you need them to enunciate and face you when they speak (you may need to remind the teacher about this periodically)
• Make sure the classroom or learning area is well-lit
• Make sure the classroom is free of environmental or background noise
• Sit close to the teacher or tutor, where you can clearly see their face
• Get immediate feedback from your tutor to make sure that you’re truly understanding the tutor’s pronunciation and then commit that motor-movement to memory
• Get your hearing professionally tested and follow the advice of your doctor or specialist
Riebock also offers tips for language tutors and teachers of hearing-impaired students:
• Do not mumble; speak clearly
• Do not talk to students while facing away from them (for example while facing a whiteboard)
• Do not talk with your hand over your chin, mouth, or face
• If you have a moustache or beard, keep it neatly trimmed so that your mouth is clearly visible
• Use minimal pairs in Gaelic to sharpen students’ auditory discrimination (Author’s note: Michael Bauer lists example sentences with minimal pairs on pp. 160-165 of Blas na Gàidhlig).
Too Late for What? Your Language Learning Goals
When I say it’s “never too late,” I mean that it’s never too late for you to reap positive benefits from studying and learning Gaelic, no matter how old you are. From enhancing your brain function and staving off symptoms of dementia, to connecting more deeply with a culture that’s important to you, there are many good reasons for taking up the study of Gaelic at any age.
It’s also helpful to think about what your language learning goals are, and how much time you want to spend on meeting them. Is your main goal to achieve fluency? Following a once-per-week class format, you are unlikely to become fully fluent in Gaelic at any age. But Gaelic language study is not a case of all-or-nothing.
If a leisurely once-per-week class is more your style, then it will probably be helpful to frame your language-learning goals in terms of personal health benefits and social and cultural enjoyment. Incidentally you are also helping to support your local Gaelic tutor, both economically and culturally!
If you wish to frame your language-learning goals in terms of becoming fluent as quickly as possible, and you have the motivation and energy, then you could think in terms of an immersion format, whether it’s a course that meets twice or more weekly, a summer intensive, or even a full-time course.
Whatever your language learning goals and whatever your age, you’re doing very good things for yourself and the Gaelic community by pursuing the study of Gaelic, and I wish you all the best!