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Learning a Language in Your 40s

I wish I’d paid attention in middle school. I wish I’d paid attention in high school. I wish I’d paid attention in college.

But I didn’t. Maybe if I knew back then that one day I’d really need to know how to speak Spanish I might have tried harder. But I didn’t. I learned what I needed to know for tests, never spoke, never tried, and subsequently didn’t learn much.

So here I am. 43 years old and trying to finally learn Spanish. Like for real this time. At least enough to carry on meaningful conversation. But I catch myself daydreaming about being able to speak to my friends, or even a congregation, from the heart.

They say the older you get the harder it is to learn a second language. I can’t speak for anyone else but I can attest to it being hard.

But like many hard things. The more I learn the better things get.

Language Acquisition Progress

I’m getting better. I can follow conversations that are about present day things, especially things with immediate context, like plans for the day or news or simple stuff like that.

I can follow along at church just fine. Actually, nothing really seems to help me learn faster than a church service. Since I already understand the context of the service it’s easy to know what’s going on. I can usually follow along with a sermon enough to understand. Worship music is becoming more meaningful. It’s really, really helpful to say words out loud, so singing worship music and congregational reading is very helpful.

For those who are Christian and learning Spanish, I can’t recommend going to a Spanish language service enough.

I struggle with conversation beyond the pleasantries and small talk. I can usually follow along with what’s being said to me but it is hard to “let go” and stop trying to translate everything in my head, being worried about getting the verbs right and all that.

What’s Working

  • Being in situations where I have no choice but to speak Spanish. (Serving the migrant shelter in TJ really, really helps. Going grocery shopping, navigating the city, all of that is awesome.
  • Speaking for understanding vs. worrying about being correct. I am sure there is a fancy educational word for this. But it really helps me to be understood even if my verbs or tense or some of the words are wrong. The act of “letting go” of the worry about being correct feels like it’s a big part of actually acquiring the language. (Thank you to my friends and the general public in Tijuana for politely correcting me, recognizing that I’m trying.)
  • Listening to Spanglish. Spanglish is a mishmash of English and Spanish you hear spoken, particularly in border areas.
  • Mexican Spanish language podcasts. I’ve got a number of them in rotation right now. I don’t catch every last detail of what’s going on, but they really help. I listen to News in Slow Spanish, which helps a lot. Even the Duolingo Spanish podcast helps as it is in intermediate Spanish with English context added in.
  • Immersion. My volunteer work in Mexico has been super helpful for language acquisition. Just keeping up with two Spanish speakers conversation in a meeting is super helpful.
  • Duolingo. Every day I practice a little bit. 9/10 days I’m reviewing lessons I’ve already learned. But the action of keeping my streak alive really does serve as a daily reminder to keep learning.
  • Reading newspapers and reading articles. I love that the San Diego Union Tribune has a Spanish edition. And I follow a number of journalists in Mexico on social media so that I can read their articles.

What’s Holding Me Back

  • Lack of vocabulary. As much as I love Duolingo, it just doesn’t give me enough new words. I’ve been using it for more than a year and it’s still not giving me future or past tense stuff. And I can talk about apples and cell phones all day. But I probably know 2,000 words when I need to know 20,000 at least.
  • A conversation buddy. I know there are opportunities to do this. But I’m at the point where I really could use a tutor or someone I could pay to sit with me at Starbucks for an hour each week and work on my conversational stuff.
  • Locals aren’t that patient. I constantly have funny experiences where I’ll be in a context where everyone is speaking Spanish, I’m prepared to jump in, but they take one look at me and switch to English. Grrrr… not helpful!
  • My old brain. For real. I made mention of this and I can’t say it enough… learning a language requires exercising a part of the brain that hasn’t been needed in a long, long time. Jackson can learn phrases once and use them forever. I need to learn them over and over again and even still, there’s a high likelihood that I’m not going to remember fast enough for conversation.
  • Time. I mean, in an ideal world, if I wanted to get serious about learning Spanish I’d go on an immersion trip. Say 3 months in Guatemala or even Mexico City where I’d take Spanish classes while living in a situation where I needed to speak 24 hours per day. But I’m a grown up and I can’t exactly just disappear to Antigua for 3 months. I wish I could though.

It’s Doable

If you’re reading this and you’ve been thinking about learning a language, specifically Spanish… let me encourage you to try. I recognize that this post shared a lot of the realness about how hard it is.

But it’s also rewarding. Here, in the United States, Spanish is the second most popular language. More and more of our population is going to speak Spanish as their primary or secondary language as time goes on.

And as a Christian, part of learning to love my neighbor means I need to love them enough to learn their language.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

3 replies on “Learning a Language in Your 40s”

Totally doable. For me it’s always asking for the Spanish word or meaning for something. Last week I learned “Cichirrones.”

Being so far removed from the Southern border these days, I’m grateful for a woman in our church from Guadalajara who is always testing me and teaching me new words and phrases.

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