Are you ever too old to learn Chinese?

Mandarin Chinese is quickly becoming a need-to-know language for learners of all ages. As one of the most spoken languages in the world, it is no surprise that teenagers and young adults are rushing to learn Mandarin to build a better future career. But what about older learners? Are you ever too old to learn Chinese?

To answer this question, we interviewed Chinese teachers at three exceptional Chinese language schools:

These three teachers have plenty of insight and wisdom to share for adult and elderly Mandarin learners! It’s never too late to learn.


China Admissions(CA): Is there an increase in the number of adult learners (30+) studying Chinese? Why do adult learners decide to study Chinese?

Abigale: Yes, more and more adult students start to learn Chinese with us every year. There are many reasons for adult students to learn Chinese, and they’re usually related to our students’ future career development in China. The Chinese market has a huge potential and Chinese culture is extensive and profound.

Angela: We are the online education college of BLCU. Most of our students are working adults who take part-time classes with us. I think more than 50% of our students are 30+.

Anna: One major reason that adult learners decide to study Chinese is because Chinese-speaking areas like mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore are becoming increasingly attractive destinations for expats. Another category of adult Chinese learners are parents looking to raise multilingual, culturally-savvy children who want to help support their childrens’ Chinese studies at home.

CA: How should an adult learner study differently than a younger learner?

Anna: Older adult learners don’t necessarily need to study differently than younger learners. The best way to learn Chinese is through extended, full-time linguistic and cultural immersion in China. Learning Chinese in this way is extremely beneficial for learners of all ages. 

However, spending a long time studying Chinese in China may not always be practical for older learners, who generally have more professional and family commitments than younger learners do. Thus, many adult learners may have no choice but to choose more flexible study options such as online language courses. Such classes can be tailored around adult learners’ busy schedules. If adult learners have time, they should also consider short-term intensive language study programs in China if possible. Even short-term immersion programs can go a long way towards helping students learn to implement the skills that they have developed in the classroom.

Abigale: Adult learners are more active and have clear learning goals in terms of Chinese learning. Adult learners do better in previewing and reviewing lessons, therefore, they can quickly improve their Chinese language skills. For some adult students, it only takes six months to reach advanced level. There are also some students who focus on formal expressions related to work, such as business Chinese, professional Chinese, Chinese for news reporting and diplomacy. However, adult students’ memory and learning speed are not that good compared with young students, and they usually need to spend more time practicing. In addition, adult students focus more on communication after studying Chinese.

Angela: For younger learners (under 12 or younger), they learn a new language mostly by natural acquisition. So helping them be interested in studying and helping them repeat and remember the language is very important. For adult learners, they learn a new language more consciously. They may not have the good memory as younger students, but they have very clear motivation about learning and could understand a language in a more logical way. They can do better in grammar and structured learning than younger students.

's Mandarin adult learners too old to learn chinese
Adult learners study in a group class at That’s Mandarin.

CA: What are the biggest differences between a university-aged learner (18-30), middle aged learner (40-60), and elderly learner (60+)?

University Learners: Aged 18-30

  • Angela: At 18-30, university students have more time to study; accept new knowledge quickly; usually do better in pronunciation learning.
  • Abigale: Students aged 18-30 are more active and can invest a lot of time in learning Chinese. They are interested in a wide range of contents. They like to take their first language into account when studying Chinese. They are also fond of exploring the differences between different languages.
  • Anna:  University-aged learners may be motivated by a personal interest in Chinese language and culture, or by the belief that Chinese language skills might help them in their future career. They may also be motivated by a need to complete specific language requirements as part of their university degree program. University-aged students are often interested in developing general linguistic competency in all aspects of Chinese.

Middle-Aged Learners: Aged 40-60

  • Anna: Middle-aged students are frequently motivated to study Chinese because they need to do so for work. They may be specifically interested in learning language skills targeting a specific purpose, such as business Chinese, or targeting a specific industry in which they are working or plan to work.
  • Angela: At 40-60, middle-aged adults have a strong learning motivation; have rich life experience which helps them get their own learning methods; have less time to study because of work.
  • Abigale: Students aged 40-60 usually can’t spend a lot of time studying Chinese because of their work and families. They usually have four classes a week, and they prefer to study in the morning or in the evening. They don’t have much time to preview and review their lessons, but they are persistent and usually have a long-term learning plan.

Elderly Learners: Aged 60+

  • Abigale: There are only a few beginners at this age. Most of them are students who have reached intermediate or advanced levels. They want to continue to maintain or further improve their Chinese levels. Students at this age are particularly interested in Chinese culture.
  • Anna: Like university-aged students, elderly students are often motivated to study Chinese by the intrinsic interest that they have in the language. In fact, this interest in learning Chinese and exploring Chinese culture is frequently something that elderly students have had their entire lives. In many cases, they have simply not had a chance to pursue their interests until after retirement. Elderly students are often interested in specific aspects of Chinese that interest them and their interests can be quite diverse, so language programs with a high degree of customization are useful.
  • Angela: Learners aged 60+ have more time to study than 40-60; relaxed learning attitude (a lot of them learn Chinese just because of interest); but are slower in remembering new knowledge.

CA: How do you teach adults differently than university students?

Anna: One big difference between adults and university students is the amount of life experience that each possesses. University students are generally focused on developing general language skills. They are often familiar with a structured academic environment and may require a good deal of guidance from their teachers regarding what to learn and how to learn it.

Adult learners, on the other hand, tend to have a wealth of life experience that they bring to the classroom. They are often quite busy and need to see how their language learning is relevant to their life experiences and their careers, so it helps to integrate their life experience into the classroom through related discussions, readings, and activities. 

Adult learners also tend to be more self-motivated than younger students, and may be able to engage in self-directed learning to a higher degree since they have already completed their own education and developed an awareness of their own learning styles. Thus, it is often helpful to give adult learners a higher degree of autonomy when it comes to deciding what they will study, when they will study it, how they will study it, and how outcomes will be measured. 

Abigale: Our teachers can help students to the greatest extent using our NihaoCafe system. The teaching contents are rich, and the video materials are closely related to people’s daily lives. For each stage of students’ learning process, our teachers are constantly optimizing the teaching contents and methods, and they can choose online and offline classes according to their busy schedules.

Angela: Instead of intensive courses, we provide part-time learning programs for working adult learners. We provide smaller classes that are easier to adjust the content and teaching methods according to students’ learning needs. We will choose broader topics for the learning material, for example, topics related to their work or what they are interested in, not limited to campus life. We also work to give students more encouragement in teaching and maintain students’ self-confidence.

too old to learn Chinese
You are never too old to learn Mandarin Chinese!

CA: Are you ever too old to learn Chinese?

Abigale: Of course not. Some of our students are 80 years old and are still learning Chinese. They study very hard, which also inspired us. It’s never too late to learn!

Angela:  In my opinion, it’s never too late to study. I used to have a student in his 80s. Of course he is not a fast learner. But he still enjoys his learning. Even a little progress every day is better than standing still, right?

Anna: You are never too old to learn Chinese. While children are generally more adept at quickly learning and remembering new information, including languages, it is possible for individuals of any age to become completely fluent in Chinese (including the written and spoken language) as long as they are willing to put forth the time and effort. 

CLI has hosted thousands of adult learners, including elderly students, who have made impressive progress in just several weeks or months through a combination of intensive one-on-one classes, self-study, and immersion in Guilin’s Chinese language environment

Additionally, research shows that learning a second language actually has benefits for aging populations, including improving memory and concentration and lowering risks of dementia and Alzheimers.

CA: What study tips and encouragement do you have for older learners?

Angela: Slow down the pace of learning; start with small goals; step by step; and have confidence about learning.

Anna:  Older learners should integrate devoted, focused time to study Chinese into their daily routines. Whether it’s reviewing flashcards for twenty minutes during a lunch break at work or reading Chinese articles for one hour before bed, forming and sticking to daily habits is an essential step towards fluency.

Older learners should also set realistic goals for themselves, such as taking an HSK test every one or several years, in order to help keep themselves accountable and track their progress. Older learners should also utilize materials in the target language that actually interest them rather than only sticking to textbooks. For example, they could read a Chinese translation of their favorite novel or watch a genre of TV shows that interests them in Chinese. 

Adult learners should also be encouraged by the many advantages that they have when it comes to learning Chinese, such as being more self-aware and having a better understanding of their strengths/weaknesses and specific learning styles (i.e., visual, auditory, reading/writing, kinesthetic). This kind of self-knowledge is sure to help them learn and retain new information more effectively. Older learners likely also possess valuable cultural and communication experience that will allow them to better utilize their Chinese skills.

Abigale: Practice more in terms of listening and speaking. There is no need to be afraid of making mistakes. It’s very important to work hard on pronunciation and tones as they are critical for the next step of your learning. Meanwhile, it’s also very important to apply what you’ve learnt to practice and share your life experience in Chinese. Age is not a problem, as long as you follow your teacher’s instructions and spend enough time practicing your Chinese, you’ll be able to speak good Chinese!

Study Chinese at any age!

If you aren’t yet convinced that Chinese is for all students at any age, you might want to try a class out yourself. Check out these quality options for adult learners and study with the great teachers we interviewed:

Anna teaches at the Chinese Language Institute

The Chinese Language Institute (CLI) is a privately owned China-based centre that offers Chinese language programs and cultural studies. CLI has a wide variety of Chinese programs for beginners and advanced learners. In addition, the institute also opens opportunities for students to study at Guangxi Normal University. CLI also hosts seminars throughout China, and one-on-one Chinese lessons online for international students.


Abigale teaches at That’s Mandarin

That’s Mandarin is one of the oldest Chinese schools in China. With a unique approach to language learning and their own in-house teaching platform, they focus on providing the smoothest service and the best teaching experience to all their students — whether they are studying Chinese online, or at one of their Chinese language schools in China.


Angela teaches at Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU)

Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU) is a public language university located in the northwestern suburbs of Beijing, 12 km from Tian’anmen, the center of the city, and was founded in 1962. The BLCU campus covers an area of 38 hectares, with a floor space of 240,000 square meters.

BLCU is the only international university in China with its main task set at teaching the Chinese language and culture to non-Chinese students and serves as the center for teaching Chinese and the study of the Chinese language.


Read More About Learning Chinese:

Study Chinese in China: How to Choose a Language Program
Should I Learn Simplified or Traditional Chinese?
Best FREE Ways to Self-Study Chinese Online
7 Best Apps To Learn Chinese For FREE in 2024

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Savannah Billman has a master's degree in Chinese Law and Society at the Yenching Academy of Peking University. She holds a B.A. from NYU Shanghai and has also written for The World of Chinese, TechNode, SupChina, and Sixth Tone.
Savannah Billman

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