According to the “critical period hypothesis,” it’s easier to learn a language before the age of 13. That theory says that’s when you have a better chance of achieving fluency and being accent-free.
When I started studying Spanish two-and-a-half years ago, I was already 40 years past that window, so I wasn’t sure how my attempts to learn Spanish would play out.
The first year I studied alone at home with books and CDs so it was hard to gauge my progress or to know how well I was doing.
The real test came on my first trip last November to Costa Rica where I was going to study at a Spanish language school. A long flight later, I arrived in the dark and when I walked out the airport doors into a mass of unfamiliar faces and the sound of a foreign language all around, I was happy I’d arranged for a person associated with the school to pick me up.
I spotted him with a sign with my name on it, standing among the crowd of many other greeters. This had the benefit of simplifying the introduction process…plus I felt a little bit like a movie star!
I asked Henri, the man who had come to meet me, in Spanish if he could speak English, pleased that already my home study was coming in handy. My heart sank a bit when he answered “no”; Henry was also providing my home-stay accommodation. How would we communicate for the next week? I had a moment of anxiety, but I reminded myself that this was what I was here for as I climbed into the back seat of the car with him and his wife, Angela, for the 45-minute ride to Playa Brasilito, the tiny, picture-perfect fishing village that I would be staying in for the next week.
On the drive, we covered the standard topics in my beginner study books: that I was from Canada, that it was cold and snowy there (it was November), and that I had two sons (the “Getting Acquainted” chapter), I’d asked them what time it was (the “Basic Needs” chapter), and of course, I’d completed the “Greetings” chapter at the airport.
I had about exhausted the vocabulary that I knew. That is, unless we were going to start a counting game and I could show off my knowledge of numbers, or we happened to go to a restaurant, so I could wow them with my food and ordering vocabulary…
I was at a loss, or rather my Spanish skills were, as to how to go further with the conversation at this point. Instead, I sat back and enjoyed the feel of the warm humidity and the tropical scents wafting in through our open windows, and took some pleasure in understanding the occasional word as the couple spoke together.
When we were almost at their house, Angela suddenly turned to me and asked, “Tiene hambre?”…to which I promptly answered, “No, estoy divorciada” (no, I’m divorced). You see, I thought she was asking if I was married because “tiene hombre” translates to “you have man?”, a question I realized afterward doesn’t even make grammatical sense.
There was an awkward pause before Angela started making hand gestures towards her mouth, saying “Tiene hambre” again. The penny dropped. She was asking me, “Are you hungry?” When I realized my error, we all had a good laugh—albeit mine was an embarrassed one.
Since then, I have made several more trips to countries in Latin America to study Spanish. I’m still easily confused if the conversation starts without context, but “poco a poco” (little by little), I am making progress.
I still often mistake words, though usually none as embarrassing as that first slip up. I realize I may never attain fluency or an accent-free Spanish, so I’ve moved on from worrying about that “critical period hypothesis.” These days, I’m just enjoying the fact that learning a second language exercises the brain…and I stick to a “use it or lose it” hypothesis!