It’s never too late to learn a second language! Sure, kids may have those “spongy” brains… but the reality is, there are many advantages to learning a new language as an adult. Here, Spanish tutor Joan B. explains…
If you studied a language in middle school or high school, you might recall the days of memorizing verbs and vocabulary for your exams. Maybe you also recall learning with ease as you familiarized yourself with foreign sounds, words, and experiences.
As an adult, on the other hand, learning a new language is definitely a different experience. It’s not all bad, though: there are some big advantages, too! Understanding how adults learn differently will help you stay aware of possible challenges, while taking advantage of the benefits of being an adult learner.
Let’s start with the challenges of learning a new language as an adult:
1. You’ll need more discipline to make time for lessons and studying.
“Adulting” takes time, and it can be hard to fit in regular lessons and study, both of which are essential for consistent progress in your target language. While you might not have afternoons free like you did as a child and young adult, I recommend blocking out times in your schedule that are distraction-free and one hundred percent focused on language learning. Even if the chunks of time are short, consistent study will lead to noticeable progress, so keep it up!
2. Losing your American accent completely can be difficult.
When children learn a new language, they naturally assimilate the unique sounds, inflection, and rhythm of the language. As adults, it can be harder to completely master the accent, as the foreign sounds can be challenging to assimilate completely since speech patterns are already set.
There’s good news, though: if you were exposed to the sounds of foreign languages as a child, that can be enough to make learning a new accent easier, as studies have shown that just exposure as children, even without speaking, can familiarize us with the sounds at a later date.
And even without that exposure, there are many ways your tutor can help you improve your accent if it doesn’t come naturally to you. Working with a language tutor — as opposed to relying on prerecorded courses, videos, and apps — is key, as you’ll get feedback and corrections as you’re speaking.
3. You might not have the time for a thrice-weekly or daily class like you had in middle or high school.
You may have counted down the minutes until the end of the school day, whereas now you dream of uninterrupted time for study and self-development as a working adult. The upside is that there are many opportunities for adults to pursue intensive, serious study, as well. You might even benefit more as a serious adult student than you did as an adolescent.
Examples of study you could undertake include summer or winter intensives during time off of work, night classes, online group classes, and private tutoring sessions, all of which can fit into the busiest of schedules. With these ideas, you’ll be learning your target language in leaps and bounds!
4. Spontaneity is often tempered by fear of making mistakes.
A big difference between adults and kids is that the latter group is often unhampered to try new things, even if it means looking a little ridiculous and making errors. Adults can be intimated by trying new things, and making errors is frowned upon.
This can make it challenging to learn well, as an inherent part of language learning is to make mistakes and experiment! You can remain aware of this downfall and work to overcome fear of mistakes by staying open, having fun, and trying new things.
5. Vocabulary acquisition needs targeted practice.
As an adult, it’s often not enough to just rely on exposure to acquire and memorize new vocabulary. As you learn, you’ll need to make a targeted and concerted effort to memorize new vocabulary. Children and adolescents can often pick up new vocabulary simply through exposure and repetition; the advantage adults have is that they can choose to focus on specific vocabulary sets that interest them. These could be highly specific (i.e. Spanish vocabulary for healthcare) or general; either way, you’ll be learning exactly what you want to learn, which should feel good!
6. Grammar won’t come naturally.
Children learning new languages often pick up sentence structure and other grammatical points simply by listening and interacting. Adults, on the other hand, may struggle with structures that are different in their native language. Because of this, grammatical exercises and dedicated study are usually necessary.
However, adults can use the grammar rules they already know and understand as a jumping off point for learning a new language’s grammar. This can be advantageous as well as an interesting exploration if you have an interest in how languages function. To sum it up, adults can often explain the “why” behind a usage in a language, while children can only execute the grammatical function without the capacity to explain.
We’ve alluded to a few of the advantages already, but did you know there are more? The next time you’re worried it’s too late to learn a second language, keep these four things in mind.
1. Adults posses greater comprehension ability and organizational practices.
Many parents choose to raise their child bilingual, since young brains can rapidly absorb new information. However, as an adult you will be empowered by your ability to organize, summarize, and comprehend things on a macro-level. Translation: you can see the smaller details within a language, as well as the bigger points you need to master to speak well.
This ability allows you to progress rapidly in a language — if you’re dedicated, consistent, and motivated. You may never be able to learn totally through exposure like a child, but with the above skills, you’ll find yourself speaking and understanding your target language in no time.
2. As an adult, you’re choosing to study language.
As a high school student, you may have studied a language simply to fulfill a requirement — not the greatest motivator to fuel language acquisition. As an adult, you’ve chosen to study a second language based on your interests, goals, and motivations. Perhaps you want to travel and communicate with locals, use it in your work, or communicate with a loved one, romantic or otherwise.
Here’s your advantage: you can use this motivation to engage more deeply with the language, and simultaneously improve more rapidly. It’s the opposite of learning something only to replicate the information on a written exam to pass a class. Bonus: discuss your goals with your teacher or tutor so he or she can tailor your lessons to your interests!
3. You’ll pick up cultural nuances easier.
The subtleties and finer points of a language may (or may not) be unconsciously absorbed by children; however, adults can consciously notice these elements and use that information to enhance their understanding.
This can allow you to assimilate more easily into the foreign culture of the language you’re learning, plus pick up on nonverbal and social cues. You’ll appear more confident and informed when you find yourself interacting with locals while traveling or just in everyday life.
4. You have more opportunities for practicing your target language.
As a younger student, your opportunities for practicing a language were probably restricted to the classroom setting. As an adult, the world is your oyster! You can practice during Skype calls with friends learning the same language, explore a neighborhood in your city that will give you more exposure, or even travel internationally.
Just remember to strike a balance; it’s important to study formally with language materials, but immersion learning will help you master the art of conversation and local dialects.
Ready to Get Started?
As you can see, learning a new language as an adult can be quite different from how you learned as a child! Hopefully you can also see the myriad challenges and advantages, and use them to learn intelligently and enjoyably as you gain fluency in your target language.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that each language learner is different; regardless of age or prior language-learning experience, everybody learns in a unique way. Think about your learning style and goals, and let your tutor know. Enjoy your journey!