Home > Aging, Education > It’s Never Too Late to Learn a Foreign Language: Foreign Language Acquisition in Late Adulthood

It’s Never Too Late to Learn a Foreign Language: Foreign Language Acquisition in Late Adulthood

Speaking of learning a second language, do you think about the common saying “the earlier the better”? Have you ever wanted to start learning a new language and then stopped because of this saying? If your answer is yes, I suggest you cross the saying out of your mind because yes, learning a language is hard – at pretty much any age past 3 – but it IS still possible. Therefore, age should never be a critical determining factor when deciding whether to learn a foreign language or not. In fact, we should all start learning a new language for the sake of healthy and active aging because there are plenty of cognitive benefits in late adulthood if you can speak more than one language. And, many seniors are participating in foreign language learning classes in third-age universities around the globe right now.

Look how engaged the senior students are in a second language learning classroom in Heredia, Costa Rica. Picture retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/business/retirementspecial/learning-a-new-language-on-location.html

You might be wondering why I stress the importance of language learning, and here’s the reason: With the population ages and the incidence rates of dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases on the rise, finding ways to prevent, or at least delay, older adults’ cognitive declines are essential. Multilingualism has been linked to better daily cognitive performance, such as remembering to take medicine and go to appointments on time and being able to concentrate on a task for a longer period, among older adults. Moreover, multilingualism has also been found to link with delayed dementia onset time. Considering that right now there’s limited pharmaceutical treatment for dementia and yet incident of dementia is on the rise, being able to delay the dementia onset time is beneficial. In general, learning a second language seems to be a promising solution to increase healthy aging.

To demonstrate that being bilingual does have positive benefits in late adulthood, let’s discuss Kavé and colleagues’ study that examined monolingual, bilingual, and multilingual Israeli Jewish elders’ cognitive state in their 80s. For those elders who reported speaking two or more languages fluently, their cognitive ability in time orientation, memory, and concentration was significantly better than the monolingual elders. By time orientation, the researchers tested whether the elders could tell the specific year, month, date, and time at testing. The older adults memory was tested by looking at their ability to recall three random phrases immediately and after a delay. And, the concentration task was about reciting the months in backward order. Overall, this study along with several similar studies in the literature point to the cognitive benefits in late adulthood of being multilingual.

While one might suspect that the benefits of healthy cognitive aging only apply to those who have mastered their second language, research evidence suggest that’s not always the case. For example, Bak and colleagues found that the elders who learned but never mastered a second language in their 30s or 40s still had higher cognitive performance than the monolingual elders. Specifically, the research looked at elders’ fluid intelligence, which is generally defined by our ability to reason, transform, manipulate, and think abstractly about novel information. Some tasks that rely heavily on fluid intelligence include solving puzzles, finding patterns in statistical data, and engaging in speculative reasoning tasks. The study also tested the elders’ vocabulary and reading ability by asking them to pronounce 50 irregular English words (based on the National Adult Reading Test). The study result revealed that elders who learned a second language before outperformed the monolingual elders in the fluid intelligence test, verbal reasoning task, and reading task. Thus, the study hinted that it is the cognitively challenging and enriching process of learning a foreign language that is the key point to cognitive benefits.

Even if we push the second language learning age to one’s 60s or 70s, acquiring a new language still brings benefits to cognition. This can be seen by the improvements in elders’ cognitive test results before and after taking a second language learning intervention program. Depending on the intervention program design, elders would attend classes with a teacher and practice the foreign language by doing homework for about 1 to 8 months. Overall, researchers have found the language learning program beneficial for elders aged from 60 to 85 years old as those who took a second language learning class had improvements in their cognitive ability. As a result, second language learning is possible for elders, and more importantly, beneficial to their cognition despite their proficiency in the second language. 

Look at the big bright smiles of the elders while learning a new language and engaging with their new friends! Picture retrieved from: https://www.theoldish.com/seniors-stay-sharp-with-college-classes/

To further encourage you all to pick up a new language, I want to emphasize the social components associated with language learning. Language learning often includes four components: listening, speaking, reading, and writing, and the four components all contribute to successful communication and socialization between people. Participating in a second language intervention program itself is a way to meet new people and socialize with them. Moreover, the feedback and communication between the teacher and the elders is a beneficial social component for elders. Because maintaining an active social life in late adulthood can contribute to positive cognitive outcomes and promote healthy aging (for more about the benefits of socialization in cognitive aging, check out this blog post), acquiring a second language is an optimal leisure activity for elders to engage in. In this way, elders not only participate in cognitively effortful learning that slows down cognitive decline but also start an active social life that avoids isolation. Therefore, learning a second language for elders is like killing two birds with one stone! 

While we’ve talked a lot about the benefits of acquiring a new language, the question now arises is: how do we learn a foreign language effectively? What are some tips to promote the “best” language learning experience for the elders? Because of the current demographic changes, the field of the third-age university and especially the older adult language education branch was emerging in the last decade. In general, scholars in the field of older adults’ language education stress two components: individualized, self-paced instructions and the inclusion of real-world materials. Individualization is important because human beings are unique. We probably have different learning habits, time availabilities to study, and different interesting topics. Considering all the differences, it’s best to have individualized and self-paced learning plans and instructions to boost motivation. Also, I am sure we all want the language-learning process to be fun and interesting, so it’s better to tailor the learning material to real-world, self-interested ones. Elders often do have intact semantic knowledge, which is general knowledge and features about the world that we have acquired and abstracted throughout our life experiences. With intact semantic knowledge, it is easier to learn new material by linking them to prior semantic knowledge for the elders. Moreover, elders can also understand concrete ideas better than abstract ideas. Therefore, linking second language learning concepts to real-world materials is crucial to facilitate language learning for elders.

Overall, second language learning is possible for everyone, including elders, and it is beneficial for us because it is a promising avenue to prevent cognitive decline or at least delay the onset of age-related cognitive diseases. Considering that the age of second language acquisition and mastery of a new language is not the key points to slow down cognitive aging, it’s never too late to start learning a new language! 


Bak, T., Nissan, J., Allerhand, M., & Deary, I. (2014). Does bilingualism influence cognitive aging?: Bilingualism and Aging. Annals of Neurology, 75(6), 959–963. https://doi.org/10.1002/ana.24158

Bubbico, G., Chiacchiaretta, P., Parenti, M., di Marco, M., Panara, V., Sepede, G., Ferretti, A., & Perrucci, M. G. (2019). Effects of Second Language Learning on the Plastic Aging Brain: Functional Connectivity, Cognitive Decline, and Reorganization. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 13, 423. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2019.00423

Kavé, G., Eyal, N., Shorek, A., & Cohen-Mansfield, J. (2008). Multilingualism and cognitive state in the oldest old. Psychology and Aging, 23(1), 70–78. https://doi.org/10.1037/0882-7974.23.1.70

Kliesch, M., Giroud, N., Pfenninger, S. E., & Meyer, M. (2017). Research on Second Language Acquisition in Old Adulthood: What We Have and What We Need. In D. Gabryś-Barker (Ed.), Third Age Learners of Foreign Languages (pp. 48–75). Multilingual Matters. https://doi.org/10.21832/9781783099412-006

Pfenninger, S. E., & Singleton, D. (2019). A critical review of research relating to the learning, use and effects of additional and multiple languages in later life. Language Teaching, 52(4), 419–449. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444819000235

Ware, C., Dautricourt, S., Gonneaud, J., & Chételat, G. (2021). Does Second Language Learning Promote Neuroplasticity in Aging? A Systematic Review of Cognitive and Neuroimaging Studies. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 13, 706672. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnagi.2021.706672

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