Illustration by David Senior

As an adult, you might think you’ve missed the boat for LEARNING ANOTHER LANGUAGE. But with enough time and the right attitude, you can learn to speak anything from Estonian to Esperanto.

Learning a second language is a daunting goal for many adults who hold the disheartening belief that picking up an additional language after the age of 15 is next to impossible. This belief is based on the fact that after puberty, the human brain begins to lose its “plasticity” and becomes more rigid in the way it learns and acquires skills — including the way the brain grasps a foreign language. But most of us who took a foreign-language course in middle or high school will tell you we actually learned very little during that period. Yes, children have the advantage of having brains that are more flexible and easier access to a classroom, but adults possess the drive and motivation to pursue a second language outside the classroom, making them, in fact, the superior language learners.

Scott Young from Vancouver, British Columbia, left for a business-school exchange program in France in August 2009 at the age of 21. Young had taken French classes in grade school, yet he couldn’t remember even the simplest phrases, such as how to ask someone how his or her day was going. With his exchange program set to last two semesters, Young set a goal to learn as much French as he could during that time.
He initially thought learning French was going to be extremely difficult. “Learning a language as an adult is something that’s impossible to do, particularly if you didn’t spend a lot of time studying it seriously in school,” Young explains. But he discovered that for Europeans, learning another language later in life is not uncommon at all.

Young consulted language coach Benny Lewis’ blog,, during his quest. Though becoming fluent in French in just three months proved elusive for Young, about six months after beginning his exchange program, Young and Lewis met up in France and had a one-on-one conversation in French. Lewis says the belief that adults can’t learn a second language as easily as children is an “old wives’ tale.”

The concept, though, is one based in science. Known as the critical-period hypothesis, the idea was first proposed by neurologist Wilder Penfield and co-author Lamar Roberts in their 1959 paper, Speech and Brain Mechanisms. Studying incidences of language learning in feral children who had been isolated from human contact at a young age — leaving them developmentally and socially delayed, as well as lacking in language skills — Penfield and Roberts discovered that the feral children who hadn’t reached puberty acclimated better than those who were older. For example, Isabelle, a feral child found at the age of 6 in Ohio in 1938, acquired similar language skills to ­children her age within two years of beginning rehabilitation. However, Genie, a feral child found after puberty in California in 1970, had been unable to fully grasp language.