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Adult Learning: Brutal or Breezy?

An article in Inc. magazine characterizes adult learning as brutal, citing Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientists at Stanford, and the adult brain as not wired for learning new skills.  The author’s example is learning Greek.

While learning is harder as an adult (in general, and particularly for new languages), it is misleading to say that the adult brain is not wired for learning.  Even with language, some aspects of learning are pretty tough but others are much easier.

Accent or pronunciation is the most difficult aspect of learning a language after childhood.  By 6 months of age, babies are already becoming expert at distinguishing the sounds of the language that surrounds them and stop hearing sounds and distinctions that don’t create meaning.  After the age of 10 or so, it becomes very difficult indeed to speak a language without a “foreign accent,” although intensive training can certainly help.

Syntax (how words are organized to produce meaning together) can be really easy or really hard depending on how similar the languages are.  Languages that share a common word order (subject verb object) are easier than those where the word order is different.  Some languages change the ending of nouns based on their role in the sentence; these languages are called “inflected.”  An inflected language is harder to learning for an English speaker as English is not inflected.

Vocabulary is a very different proposition than pronunciation and syntax.  We learn new words all the time.  Words like COVID, RS Feed, LOL, meme, cannabusiness, the suffix “-gate” to denote a scandal, and all the jargon and technical terms we learn in the workplace continue to build our vocabulary at almost any age.  We may never acquire vocabulary as quickly as we did between 2 and 5, but our brains can manage new vocabulary without being brutalized.

It does take energy to change our brains (which is what learning is), whether we are young or old, and the principles discussed in the Inc. article are helpful, including the idea that intense focus while learning and consolidating learning with rest and sleep go hand in hand. The idea that adult learning is going to be so difficult that only the boldest should try it is not.  Our brains are plastic throughout our lives and understanding how to make learning experiences effective and efficient, suited to both the learner and the nature of the skills/information to be learned, can make the experience, if not breezy, at least also not brutal.

If you’re interested in understanding how to make your learning easier and more effective, one of our Neuroscience and Education Webinars entitled Stop Running Against the Wind is full of relevant and useful information. Or click here to set up a no-cost personal consultation.

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