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It is never too late to learn a language according to ESRC research

The ability to learn a language does not decline with age, according to new research. 

A study by the University of York, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), has found that older people with healthy brains are as skilled as teenagers in picking up foreign or unfamiliar words.

The research led by Sven Mattys shows that even individuals in their 80s do not lose this knack acquired in infancy. The discovery could be a key, he says, to improving quality of life and well-being among the UK's ageing population.

"What we've shown is it's never too late to learn," adds Professor Mattys, from the Department of Psychology. 

"Being exposed to entirely new languages or words would allow older people to stay engaged with life.

"Creating these opportunities would reduce age-related isolation. As a consequence, this could delay the onset of dementia.

"Spending time abroad, watching films or listening to foreign language radio are ways of exposing people to new words and keeping their minds young."

The York study is the first of its kind to test the impact of ageing on this language-learning ability. Known as 'statistical' learning, the technique is used by babies to master their native language. It enables them to identify words through syllable 'patterns'. They instinctively work out those that do and do not go together, without any formal instruction. Children and adults also use statistical learning to expand their vocabulary without being taught.

Tests carried out over hundreds of hours by Professor Mattys and colleagues show this ability is only affected in older people if they get distracted by performing another task at the same time. The findings are particularly relevant given that people are retiring later. Older people are under pressure to keep up with the 'jargon of contemporary technology' and topical issues, according to Professor Mattys. Research on ageing has until now focused mainly on why and how people forget the skills acquired early in life. Studies have tended to overlook how they can continue to acquire knowledge.

However, Professor Mattys says finding out how older people learn language is important. It can identify how soon the ageing process begins for example, and how 'intact' cognitive skills can compensate for declining ones. The York researchers carried out various experiments involving testing on more than 150 people. The average age was 68, with the youngest participant aged 18 and the oldest 81, with none reporting signs of age-related dementia. All were given tasks to assess their learning ability. The main test attempted to simulate what it is like to listen to a foreign language. It involved a made-up spoken language featuring several recurring new words that were recorded as a continuous stream of sound. The participants had to pick out those words from the six minute audio recording using only their intuition.  

The findings showed that the older adults were as able as the middle-aged and younger ones to extract the new words. Their scores only dropped when they were simultaneously shown images on a screen and had to spot those they saw more than once.  Younger and middle-aged participants coped relatively well in comparison.

Overall, the findings suggest that older people should be repeatedly exposed to experiences where they can learn new words and languages. This applies especially if those situations, says Professor Mattys, do not involve a conscious effort to learn.

"Acquiring a foreign language through active study gets increasingly difficult with age," he adds. "But statistical learning is resilient to this ageing process."

Further information

Notes for editors

  1. The ESRC is part of UK Research and Innovation, a new organisation that brings together the UK's seven research councils, Innovate UK and Research England to maximise the contribution of each council and create the best environment for research and innovation to flourish. The vision is to ensure the UK maintains its world-leading position in research and innovation.
  2. The ESRC is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policy-makers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective.
  3. UK Research and Innovation is a new body which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. We aim to maximise the contribution of each of our component parts, working individually and collectively. We work with our many partners to benefit everyone through knowledge, talent and ideas.
  4. Read more about Professor Mattys’ study, Word learning in early, middle and late adulthood..


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