In an attempt to reinvent ourselves, a group of us retired ladies are making an effort to learn a foreign language. It is frustrating at times because we can’t sit down and memorize long pages of text like we used too, but the no pressure approach had made learning fun.
On January 1st 2012 Gary Marcus wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal in which he deliberated on whether mastering an instrument or a foreign language was even possible at an advanced age. He is only 40, but he already considers himself an “old dog” when it comes to learning. He related how he learned how to play a guitar and why it was different this time around. He discovered that the theory about not being able to teach an “old dog” a new trick is being tested every day, and that the outcome is quite amazing. Of course you read the odd story about a 72 year old graduating from high school or someone earning a PhD at 92, but let’s talk about the rest of us. I think you will agree with Mr. Marcus that if you recognize the changes and plan accordingly, you can still reap the benefits from exercising your brain.
The author had always wanted to learn how to play the guitar but his earlier attempts had not been particularly successful. Being an academic he decided to approach middle age learning differently. For one thing, his earlier efforts to master guitar playing failed and this one did not. Adult learning may be different but no less rewarding.
Learning an instrument or a language at an older age is challenging but not so challenging that you shouldn’t try. The first and most important thing that he learned was that taking small steps and targeting the weakest skills made a difference. Forget about ads that promise that you can learn while sleeping or by listening to a tape when you drive your car. You are not going to develop professional level skills overnight and indeed you may never reach a professional level. It is okay to learn just for the sake of learning and just enjoy the process while you are at it. Enjoying the process is a luxury and one you probably couldn’t afford as a youth or even as a young adult, unless you were particularly gifted. The difference is that you are learning because you want to, not because you have to. The reason that kids learn so quickly is because they have no fear. Kids don’t worry about how good they are or are silly they look/sound.
Gone are the days of cramming the night before a test. You need to practice every day, no matter what. Marcus relates that because you are taking smaller steps it is common sense that tells you that you will need to take more of them. Practice every day and try to make it fun by varying your regimen. Find a teacher that understands your desire and your limitations and wants you to have fun anyway.
The most important lesson is that you don’t have to be a professional in order enjoy learning something. Mr. Marcus is a psychology professor who at 38 fulfilled his desire to make music. I am look forward to reading his new book called “Guitar Zero: The New Musician and Science of Learning.” I am sure it will have valuable points for all of us “middle aged” students.