Dealing with the doldrums in language learning

I could do with some encouraging support from others.

Although I learned a second language (Indonesian) to the point where I was fluent in both spoken and written material (about high intermediate level) at the end of 5 years, I have failed to learn Latin American Spanish to this level in spite of 20 years of trying.

That is partly due to differences in the type of language learning material I have been able to access in the USA (which became my home in 2000), or in the Mexican language schools that I attended for a sum total of about three months during three different visits around about the year 2010.

It is also partly due to the fact that I am in my early seventies now and older brains do not learn as well as younger ones.

An additional fact is that I am struggling with a brain that has problems that stem from things other than mere old age.

I have an autoimmune inflammatory rheumatic condition (anklosing spondylitis) that affects far more than my bones. These days, I am linguistically disadvantaged because I have a lot of soft patches in my cerebral white matter. The white matter contains the cables that connect neurons together and allow interchange between the uniquely specialized areas of the brain that must work together in complex processes like language acquisition and production. This means that electrical impulses do not travel as fast as they normally do with the consequence that my cognitive processing speed is slower than normal. In my case, the positioning of these patches produces some noticeable and specific effects on my language. On bad days I have trouble retrieving simple words that I know, even in my native tongue. (I now speak English with a (continuing) Australian accent that is modified by US spelling and grammar differences, a few specific pronunciation accommodations and the inclusion of local slang and word useage.).

Theoretically, white matter damage can be repaired – if the condition that caused it is removed. (Alcoholism, for example.) Unfortunately, that isn’t going to happen in my case. Anklosing Spondylitis is a genetically based condition that is set off by certain environmental conditions: it can be impeded and slowed, but not cured. The best I can do may be to keep exercising the cables. Perhaps it will help my brain function best if I persist with language learning in spite of the frustrations, set backs and limits on the end point that I can realistically reach. Coming to terms with the existence of such limitations is, however, difficult for me. My self-esteem is at least partly tied to the belief that I can succeed at any cognitive task that I spend enough time pursuing.

I can compensate for my verbal disabilities to some extent, since I functioned at superior levels in my younger days. In my early twenties I taught English at advanced levels. In my mid to late forties I taught English to students learning it as a Second or Other language while living in Australia and as a Foreign language while living in Indonesia. (As you may know, teaching EFL requires different teaching methods from those used with ESL because EFL students lack the daily input of a consistent and pervasive English accent in their environment.) In between these episodes I acted as the State Secretary of a branch of the Australian Psychological Society, a post that required superior verbal production in my native language.

When I am speaking English. people tend to dismiss my inability to find simple words when they hear me use complex expressions minutes later. This doesn’t work so well when I am trying to speak Spanish.

There have been many days lately when I have felt quite demoralized. I keep asking myself why I am continuing to struggle with Spanish language acquisition when I seem to be failing at it in comparison to other people. Am I simply destined to fall short, or can I succeed in spite of my disadvantages? Am I tilting at windmills like Don Quixote, or have I just reached a plateau that I can overcome?

If there are other ancianas or ancianos (old people) on this forum who have achieved fluency in a new language in spite of a not-so-young brain, then please contact me. I need some successful role models.


Notice that Steve Kaufmann has learned an impressive number of languages after he turned 60. He already knew a few before that, mind you, but he can still serve as one of the role models you’re looking for.
I think you got absolutely right when you said that learning languages is worthwhile because of its positive effect on brain function.
Concentrate on thinking of it in those terms, then find content in Spanish that you enjoy. Think of language learning as a useful exercise that in addition is enjoyable because it helps you get in touch with a culture you’re attracted to and allows you to enjoy interesting experiences.
For the time being forget about the results. Just forget about it. I for one am confident that you’ll make progress but that’s not the main thing and you are sure to benefit from the learning no matter what. Just set aside some time to get exposed to the language daily.
Concentrating on the process is essential for any learner but it may be extra important for you.
As a last point, notice that the experience of having tried to learn a language for a long time with little success is a common one and it is usually due to bad learning methods. So forget about that as well. Exposing yourself to the language on a daily basis is the best way to learn a language, besides being the most enjoyable one and the one that makes more sense for you IMO.

Le deseo muchísimo éxito. en su aprendizaje. Mucho ánimo, “Rosita”.

Muchas gracias, Francisco. Tu comentario está muy elentador. No sabía que Steve Kaufman comenzó aprendizaje de idiomas en serio a los sesenta años.