It’s Never Too Late to Learn a Language

At the ripe age of 56, New York resident Robert Paley decided to try his hand at French. So on top of a full-time job, teaching a class at Columbia University, and a schedule brimming with lectures and meetings, he started to study French. Six years later, he still practices daily and has progressed from a débutant to a bonafide francophone. This inspiring guy also happens to be my dad, so I sat down with him to find out about learning a language at a later age.

Why did you decide to learn French?

When Mom and I were in Paris for our 25th anniversary, we were standing on a bridge over the Seine looking at the beautiful Paris vista. I turned to Mom and declared, “next time we visit Paris, I will be speaking French.”

Just like that? 

No, this didn’t pop out of nowhere.  I have always admired French culture, which melds appreciating bold ideas with enjoying everyday life. The language itself also sounds so beautiful.

I briefly tried French in college to meet my foreign language requirement, and, just like my high school attempt at Spanish, I failed miserably, so I concluded I wasn’t good at languages and went on to other things. When I hit my fifties I decided I better keep learning new things so I didn’t feel old. Learning French wasn’t exactly a practical choice, but was simply for le plaisir!

Wow, that’s great that you wanted to give French another shot. So what methods did you use to start the language learning process?

I googled French study and found Alliance Française and immediately signed up. I have continued to take succeeding classes and I am now finishing the last class of Niveau B2. I try to do the homework and attend every class, which is a bit of a challenge with my schedule.

You certainly sound busy. What habits do you continue to maintain and improve your French, outside of classes? 

I read easy French books, watch French TV and listen to RFI on the internet, especially the news, which is easier to understand than other shows because the newscasters speak very clearly.

What has been the best part of learning French?

Our travels together in France! And watching the news on TV5 Monde and realizing that I can actually understand a foreign language has been a thrill, especially remembering back to when I was convinced I had no language ability.

More generally, being able to understand the little snippets of French that I encounter in a book or at the museum has opened up a whole new part of the world.

Do you have specific memories or moments where you felt you finally “got it”?

Listening to my French teacher talking at length about a childhood experience and realizing that I was understanding her entire story. When I got home I excitedly told Mom, “I think I can finally understand French!” Unfortunately, this was followed by my turning on TV5 Monde and not understanding a single word of the un-subtitled drama.

Don’t worry, I think we all have those moments. Has learning French changed your perspective on anything?

Food and wine! I have learned more about delicious fromage and the wine regions of France than I knew before and am determined to keep expanding this new perspective.

When do you use French?

Although I didn’t study French for practical reasons, there have been practical benefits. I work in transportation and development here in New York, and when I have assignments for my French class, I often focus on urban development topics, and read up in depth—and in French!—on projects like the Grand Paris Express. My research has even helped me to bring back new planning ideas to my work in New York.

Any advice for older people also trying to learn a language?

The hardest part is deciding to start. You have to be realistic and know that you won’t absorb the language as quickly as a five year old—after all, you have a lifetime’s worth of knowledge competing for brain storage!  But in the end, it is almost no different than learning when you are younger—if you are motivated and work diligently, you can make progress.

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