On languages and age

What is the value of language study, both for people and for societies? I’ve been studying Chinese, and like to take a standard Chinese test for language learning called the HSK to measure my progress. This spring I took the test at my university’s excellent Confucius Institute. The room was filled with children, and their patient parents who were trying to soothe their text anxiety. There was one person around 18 taking his HSK 4 exam. And then there was me, a fifty-two year old male. Apparently language learning is mainly for young children.

I have two friends or colleagues who have adopted children, and who have made a serious effort to learn their children’s national language. I have another old friend who is passionate about Italian, and teaches it at the local community college to spread her love for the language. But most adults don’t study languages. Many parents with higher education care deeply that their children learn a language. They will compete to get their children into magnet schools for French, Spanish and Chinese. They will spend scarce funds to send their children on a short term study abroad. But there aren’t many people who learn languages as an adult. When I was in the Confucius Institute test center it was a lot of nine year olds and I.

Of course, learning languages isn’t really necessary for work in most of the United States or Canada, unless in the latter case you want to work in the public service. As children’s free time has become more scheduled, both parents work, and many parents have a second job for additional income, it is hard for mom and dad to find the leisure time to study a language. Or anything else. And yet.

Nearly ten years ago my academic department did a survey of recent graduates. One of the questions was: “What was the one skill or quality that most helped you to find a job.” The most common answer was language ability, which surprised me. Anecdotally, this answer seemed particularly common amongst our alumni working in health care. Shortly after this result, my department voted to reduce our language requirement from three to two years. We did so for the best of reasons. Most of our students are transfers. If people transfer after two years in a community college, and then discover our major, there wasn’t time for them both to graduate from the major in four years, and do three years of a language. Many of our students would reach this point and choose to graduate with a degree in liberal studies, so that they didn’t have to delay graduation an extra year to do language study. I supported the change. But I think about decision, and wonder if there wasn’t another way to address this issue. Could we have created an Honor’s track that required a higher level of language ability?

A few years ago I attended a panel of local business owners, who talked about what they look for when hiring a new employee. Language ability was high on their list of requests, particularly Spanish. These owners stressed that what they wanted was someone who had really mastered a language. They did not want to hire someone who had dabbled in three different language. They wanted to hire someone who could make a phone call or write an email to Japan or Mexico their first day on the job. But the benefits of learning a language are much deeper and more personal.

One review of academic studies (Albán-González & Ortega-Campoverde, 2014) found that “the time elapsed between early Alzheimer’s diagnosis and the actual appearance of telltale symptoms is up to five years longer in elderly bilinguals than in elderly monolinguals. Cradle bilinguals benefit most from bilingualism but language learning in adulthood can also benefit speakers.” Obviously, bilingualism would have an immense impact not only upon these people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but also upon their families that would become their care-givers.

Of course, I think that the best reason to learn a language is because it’s fun; it allows you to adopt a different perspective through other nation’s film and literature, and because languages are beautiful. I also think that in a home where a parent is learning a language, children may be more likely to love language learning too. Its seems normal. My worry is that those children that I saw at the HSK test will learn Chinese, and then never continue to study after they are eighteen. Because they learn that language study is only for children.

If you are near Portland State University, and would like to study a language, you can learn about the department and the languages that it offers here. In addition to a plethora of face to face offerings, at the current time the department offers languages online for two years (such as Arabic and German), and it is offering first year Italian online beginning in the fall of 2019.


Albán-González, & Ortega-Campoverde. (2014). Relationship between bilingualism and Alzheimer’s. Suma De Negocios, 5(11), 126-133.

Shawn Smallman, 2019

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