It’s well-documented that children with all their intrinsic learning capabilities have a headstart on the rest of us, so it’s only natural to bemoan the fact that you weren’t brought up by a Italian father and Chinese mother in Germany (the trilingual start to life would have been nice, right?).
But it’s untrue that adults should shelve their goals to learn a new language. While you won’t wake up spouting Italian, Chinese or German tomorrow, with the right approach and with a lot of dedication, there’s no reason why adults can’t learn a new language just as well. It’s a question of adjusting your mindset.
1. You can change your expectations
If you start learning after childhood it’s unlikely you’ll achieve a native accent. But who cares? Fluency means different things to different people, and anyway, who said learning a foreign language has to be about passing as a native? The point of language learning is communicating with other human beings, so dial down the pressure.
Change “I want to camouflage myself amongst the Italians and never be – gasp! – discovered as a foreigner,” to “I’d like to speak as well as I did in highschool,” “I want to read intermediate level books in Italian,” or “I want to converse with locals in a plaza while on vacation.” These are all very reasonable goals for adult learners.
2. You're free to do what you want
Now we’ve adjusted our idea of what success means for you, let’s consider two students: a six-year-old whose parents have signed him up for weekend English classes, and an adult studying after work. Who do you think will fare better after a year? Most, knowing that children possess “sponge-like” brains, would choose the six-year-old. He’s learning without even trying, right?
Others, knowing from life experience that motivation and grit are valuable markers for success, would hedge their bets on the adult. And they’d have a point. Think about it: she’s in class because she wants to be. She’s paid with her own money and taken the time out of her day or or holiday do study. She has a clear goal in mind (see point 1) and knows the steps necessary to help achieve it. Because she has a goal, she applies herself both in and out of classroom and surprises herself when the year’s over.
While it’s not a given that an adult will improve more than a child, it’s highly likely. Kids, however young and flexible of mind, are easily distracted, need regular snack breaks and are not known for actively applying themselves in the classroom. Motivated adults on the other hand? Definitely.
3. You are more financially stable
More mature adult learners are likely to have the increased freedom of choice which comes with being financially-established. It’s no secret that spending time abroad immersed in a new culture and a new language supercharges your learning, and adult learners can often gift themselves this experience.
Whether retired, on vacation or on a sabbatical, adult learners benefit hugely from periods of overseas study, travel or expatry. And again – just like in the classroom example before – this experience is their personal choice rather than their parents’ goal and therefore very likely to be fruitful.
4. You have the benefit of previous experience
Adult learners have already achieved fluency in at least one language: their own. Through years of chatting, writing and eavesdropping in their mother tongue, they’ve amassed a vast amount of knowledge (though perhaps unconscious) about how their language works. This knowledge base becomes extremely valuable when learning an additional language, especially if it shares a root with their mother tongue (like Spanish/Italian or English/German).
Adult learners can actively use their native tongue as a jumping off point, considering the connections between the two languages’ grammar patterns or vocabulary. The differences between contrasting languages, on the other hand, are more easily analysed by adult minds. This in itself is another positive way to actively engage with language learning.
5. You have years of study experience
Your previous experience doesn’t end there – as an adult, you have previous “learning experience” in buckets. Think about it: at school and university you probably became a pretty proficient learner overall, and later picked up a whole host of skills like changing a tyre, gardening, running a small business, arguing with a boss, raising children etc. You could easily write an essay entitled “I learn best when…” in no time.
This awareness of your own learning and thinking strategies is called metacognition and it’s an awesome tool to use when approaching a new language. Thankfully, there are handfuls of ways to learn a language, ranging from weekly classes to language courses abroad (and yes, it’s possible to learn a new language in a year). While a child is yet to learn how they’d prefer to approach a new subject, you have the benefit of past experience and can choose a method that suits you.
6. You have perspective
Not only can you muster up the kind of motivation and study skills a child can’t, but you also have perspective. You know life is a journey and that learning a new language is just one way – perhaps one of the best ways – to get to know the world and make that journey a little more interesting. It’s a window to a new culture, a new perspective on life and gives you the chance to connect with entirely new people, from all kinds of fascinating corners of our world. Learning a language is a tool to that end and your skills don’t have to be perfect before you can start reaping those benefits.