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Why learning German at an older age isn’t as hard as you think

Scientists tell us that older language learners will struggle against younger peers. But a German language teacher shares how - and why - his older students excel, sometimes ahead of classmates half their age.

Three older people sit on a bench in Prerow, northern Germany in summer 2021.
Three older people sit on a bench in Prerow, northern Germany in summer 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jens Büttner

We’ve all heard the conventional notion that language learning ability decreases in adulthood, with the ease of picking up a second language dropping after the age of 18. 

One study, conducted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), furthermore stated that achieving native-level proficiency is only possible up to the age of 10.

Yet hope is far from lost for German learners even two – or three – times older than this so-called critical age, says German language teacher Felix Nolte. His immersion classes in Berlin include students of all ages, whether they are fresh out of high school or settling down into retirement.

Often it’s the older learners who are the most adept, Nolte says, as they possess an ability to heartily hone in on what they want and set realistic goals – not to mention the motivation to carry them to fruition.

For anyone who’s taken a German language class with other students at least half their age, he dispensed some tips – or nuggets of hope – that it’s never too late to learn the language of Goethe.

READ ALSO: ‘Four years ago I couldn’t speak German. Now I’m running in a Berlin election’

Ability to focus

Juggling work and family life, older adults often have less time and energy than their younger peers. Yet at the same time, older language learners can be more focused and dedicated, says Nolte, a teacher at Anda Sprachschule in Berlin. They know precisely what their aim is, and have had more experience breaking down a big target into smaller steps.

One of Nolte’s students, a middle-aged man living and working in California, devoted all of his holidays to his intensive classes in Berlin – in addition to seeking out German classes back at home. His gumption and gusto led him to speak with fluency after a few years.

Another student, a retired woman from the UK, at first seemed to progress slower than younger students in Nolte’s 20-hour-per-week class. But, carefully following all of the exercises in their aptly titled Schritte (Steps) book, she soon advanced and excelled.

Older learners are often also better at planning, and tend to have more patience, knowing that any learning process will have roadblocks along the way, says Nolte.

While setting a language learning goal that’s a year away – such as progressing from the A1 to B2 level – may seem far away for a younger language learner, the time simply passes faster for older learners. “A year is different to a just plus-40 person than a just plus-20 person,” said Nolte. “Planning for a year is easier the older that you get.”

A page from a German textbook stating ‘Practice, practice, practice’. Photo: DPA

‘But I’m too old for a WG’: Different ways of learning

Teens and young adults have many opportunities to master German, with a growing number of university programs in their home countries and Germany. Germany currently counts over 350,000 foreign students at its universities.

German is furthermore the fourth most popular language studied by high school students in the US, and is the second most popular among those in the sciences, according to the Modern Language Association of America.

READ ALSO: Four common mistakes English speakers make when learning German

Many of those students embark on study abroad programs, immersing themselves in classes in – and about – the German language, and sometimes seek to live in a shared apartment or with a family where only German is spoken.

But many Studenten seeking to learn the language are past the point of earning a degree or snagging a spot in a German-speaking flat.

Daniel Mosseri is one such person. He moved to Berlin from Italy with his wife and two children in 2012 at the age of 40.

Then an absolute Anfanger in the German language, he soon enrolled in classes, immersing himself in the difficult world of declinations and separable verbs. While the language at first seemed intimidating, his patience paid off.

“Learning German is like climbing two pyramids attached by their bases, you start from the tip and it always gets wider and more complicated,” said Mosseri, a journalist who now writes shorter articles in German.

But once a person has taken the tedious uphill journey with German, they can descend the next pyramid. “It seems difficult for at least the first year, then it slowly starts getting easier and easier,” he says.

READ ALSO: Ten German abbreviations that will have you texting like a true native

Life experience boosts vocabulary

Most people have a so-called patchwork life, with several diverse experiences they can’t yet imagine fresh out of school. These parts of life also build the pool of words and phrases that come to mind in any given situation, an asset to older language learners, says Nolte.

Later in life, adults have already learned many concrete and abstract processes, and have a clear model of how to learn. Many have already picked up – or at least studied – another second language, which they can draw on for similarities that can’t be found in their mother tongue.

Slavic language speakers of all ages are quicker to pick up the case system in German – being familiar with using six or more of them – just as English native speakers might not think anything of sentences which use articles such as ‘a’ or ‘the’. But even the later group can easily learn a foreign concept like the case system if they find similarities, says Nolte.

English speakers are already familiar with prepositions, which aids them in learning cases such as the accusative and dative, he says. They simply picture an object being in a room, or something being on the table, and then learn to find the German grammar to match.

Research also demonstrates that those who are bilingual – even if they don’t begin learning a second language until middle age – are far less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than their monolingual peers. Even if a person does not become fluent, language learning exercises – similar to the impact of physical exercise on the body – keeps the brain fit.

The best time to learn?

In contrast to the MIT study, a paper by Trinity College Dublin linguistics professor David Singleton dismisses the “critical period hypothesis,” reviewing literature on the biology of the brain to argue that there is no relevant science to back the claim that a second language can best be acquired at any given time. 

Whatever their age, Nolte urges language learners to “think of the long term before the short term,” and then break their German learning goal into manageable steps.

“Of course the earlier you start, the easier it is to pick up German,” says Mosseri, “but it’s possible for anyone.”

Member comments

  1. Well if you live in or near a city then there are a lot more classes to choose from that don’t cost a lot of euros. I have to say that the area where I live offers very little. In fact for a class 23 kms away in Wilhemshaven I was quoted 25 euros per lesson. The Volkshochschule there does classes but it’s all integration classes and you have to go through the bureaucracy of the Bundesamt fur Migration office in Oldenburg. I have to say for all my criticisms of the UK (my country) the language courses at the Further Education Institutes was excellent even in the rural town’s. I lived in London where you could learn almost any language mornings afternoons or evenings and it was not expensive. I paid £250 for 3 terms 3 hours a week. It’s even cheaper at the various local authority adult education institutes. So I go to a retired teacher. I must become proficient. I did pass A1 and A2 but my partner in the B1 speaking test mucked up me getting a B1. I have 3.5 years to go before I can apply for citizenship. However I am 68 so it’s getting harder.

  2. Great article. Congrats to The Local for presenting this. My initial introduction to learning German was through the CD courses (Hodder & Stoughton) of Michel Thomas, an utterly brilliant teacher. I fell for him right at the beginning of the first lesson when he told his listening student “There is no need of paper or writing instrument, no homework, and if anything goes wrong with your learning then it’s my fault as the teacher. All I require of you is your absolute attention plus a pause button”. I thought “this is the course for me!” and it was. He’s a genius.

    Then, I did the two week Summer intensive course at the Goethe Institute, London each year to get me to B2. They were expensive and very didactic. I didn’t really like their approach where language learning seemed more a matter of precision rather than communicating with someone in Germany. So when you took their tests, you might have been able to tell someone that it’s raining in German, but if you got a single case wrong, you still failed that exercise. For me, that’s the best way to discourage a language learner.
    As for Felix Nolte, he seems to speak excellent common sense. Wish I lived near to Berlin instead of the Black Forest! Learning German towards the end of my working life has certainly kept me sharp.

  3. I have followed an unusual approach to learning German. I’ve lived in Cologne since 2008 and have picked up the basics of the language during daily life. Recently, because of Brexit, I registered to become a German citizen purely to avoid any border crossing bureaucracy in the EU once the UK has left the bloc. That’s when I found out that I would need a “TELC B1” german language certificate….! Rather than go to classes, which I generally dislike in any subject, I signed up for a TELC B1 test, just to see what the test consisted of and how well I could do in it. Due to finger trouble in the online sign up process, I actually signed up for the B2 test and did not realise until I turned up for the test! It turned out to be an invaluable experience for me and, although I did not pass it, I was quite close to a pass and had learned an awful lot about the TELC test format. I then signed up for the easier B1 test and took it a couple of weeks ago. I’m reasonably confident that I did well enough for a pass, but I have to wait another few weeks for the result.

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For members


Six German expressions to entice your Wanderlust

The German word 'Wanderlust' means "the desire to travel" and is used even in other languages. Here are some of the other words commonly used in Germany to describe the nation's love affair with travelling.

Six German expressions to entice your Wanderlust

Germans are very connected to nature and a lot of the activities they routinely do, even in winter, involve staying outdoors. So it’s no wonder the language also reflects that passion for walking, travelling, and spending time in nature.

Some of the German words that are most famous to speakers of other languages reference this passion. Perhaps most notably, the term “Wanderlust” which has made its way to other dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster, with the definition “a strong longing for or impulse toward wandering”.

The word is composed of “wandern“, which means to hike or roam about and “lust“, meaning “pleasure or delight”.

READ ALSO: Holiday like a local: Five of the best camping regions in Germany

This is not the only unique expression the German language has related to travelling. Another of the hard to translate ones is “Fernweh“. It comes from “fern“, meaning “far”, and “Weh“, meaning “pain”. It is used to describe the longing for far-off places – in contrast to “Heimweh”, a feeling many immigrants might be very attuned to and could be translated to homesickness.

The German language also has several interesting and even funny expressions for walkers and travellers alike. The Local talked with German teacher and travel enthusiast Lutz Michaelis to collect a few of the best expressions.

“So weit dich deine/mich meine Füße tragen”

It literally means “as far as my feet will take me” (or alternatively, “as far as your feet will take you”). It is often said as an answer to the question, “where are you going?”.

READ ALSO: Waldeinsamkeit: Five of the best forest walks around Berlin

“Die Sieben-Meilen-Stiefel anhaben”

“To wear the seven-league boots”. This means being able to walk long distances fast. Lutz explains that it was actually based on a trope in French mythology, in which magical boots could help the wearer cover long distances in a short amount of time. Having been used in The Little Thumb by Charles Perrault, the term was brought into the German language by writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

“Wer rastet, der rostet”

The translation would be “he who rests, rusts”. It is used in the German language to say that being in motion is a good thing, not only with travelling but also to incentivise people to keep learning new things.

“Das Reisen kost’t Geld, Doch sieht man die Welt.”

It’s a very common rhyme used to show the downsides and benefits of travelling: “travelling costs money, but one sees the world”.

“Reisende soll man nicht aufhalten.”

It literally means that “travellers shouldn’t be stopped”. However, Lutz explains that the expression is not only used to refer to travellers but also to anyone that might be going through a transitional situation – such as someone wanting to change their jobs, for example.

Rhododendren park Bremen

Rhododendrons bloom in the Rhododendron Park in Bremen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sina Schuldt

“der Weg ist das Ziel.”

One of the most beautiful ones, and many languages have their own version of it. It translates to “the road is the destination”.

Of course, coming back home, especially for those suffering from Heimweh, can also be something beautiful. One common saying is “Wiedersehen macht Freude“, which means that to meet again brings happiness, used among those looking forward to seeing someone again after a long trip.

READ ALSO: How to explore Germany by train with the €9 ticket

And one more…

In Germany, there is a common joke about finding German people abroad. The rhyme goes “Hüte dich vor Sturm und Wind, und Deutschen, die im Ausland sind“, which could be translated as “Be on your guard for storm and wind, and Germans in a foreign land”.

“It refers both to the bad behaviour of Germans on holidays or travels and a dark joke and a funny nod to the fact that German troops have invaded other countries”, Lutz, who is a German himself, explains.