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Learning Languages as an Adult: Truths, Myths and Everything in Between

Adult Language Learning


According to statistical data, around 25% of Americans start each New Year with a set of resolutions. In 37% of cases, these decisions are focused on self-improvement. With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that interest in language learning tends to pick up around January.

But the thing is, learning languages as an adult differs considerably from doing so as an infant, child, or even teen. Is it impossible? Absolutely not! But, it does take a slightly different approach.

Want to get the absolute most out of your class? Are you looking to avoid common plateaus? Well, if that’s the case, read on for the truths and myths of learning a new language as an adult.

The Difference Between Language Learning and Acquisition

The most common myth out there is that learning a language as an adult is impossible or, at least, substantially more difficult than doing so as a child. Sure, the premise of this statement is partially accurate. However, knowing the reasons behind the phenomenon offers valuable insight for learning languages as an adult.

The difference between adults and children isn’t in their cognitive abilities. Instead, it’s in the way the language learning processes occur.

Education is a conscious process. Acquisition, on the other hand, occurs unconsciously through absorbing the grammatical conventions and syntactic structures. Generally, it starts at around six weeks of age and lasts until the pre-teen period. Learning a second language in childhood can be equally successful. MIT scientists have found that when the process is started by the age of ten, a near-native proficiency can be achieved.

But what about those who start well into adulthood? Can they still achieve a high level in a foreign language? Well, according to this research paper, it turns out they can.

Apparently, adults who have started learning a language after the age of 20 can score as high as native speakers on a test (or higher), as long as they have been consistently learning for eight to ten years.

With this in mind, it becomes apparent that becoming fluent in a foreign language isn’t impossible if you’re an adult. Instead, science seems to be directing us in a different direction: rethinking how we approach the process altogether.

Why Mere Exposure Isn’t Enough

One common misconception about learning languages as an adult (or even a child) is that it’s enough to be exposed to the input. Theoretically, if humans acquire language, anyone can learn by investing in an audio course, watching films, or reading books. Unfortunately, however, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Sure, it would be great to become fluent just by bingeing Netflix shows and listening to music. However, we now know that this type of content only promotes passive knowledge. Proficiency, or even a high level of command, requires active participation. That’s far more than being able to recognize written or spoken words.

This is why a solid language course needs to cover all the bases of learning. In addition to grammar, these should include reading, listening, writing, and speaking

Active participation is the reason why visiting a foreign country is such a successful method of language learning. For one, it exposes the student to native speakers. But more importantly, it forces them to apply the knowledge they already have. 

Of course, the thing to keep in mind is that active participation isn’t possible without some level of previous knowledge. So, the student must have some command of basic grammatical structures and phrases to actually benefit from the intensified language exposure.

Taking Individual Differences into Account

Another thing to consider when choosing a language course is that each individual has different learning needs and patterns. Naturally, this means that the teaching methodology or even schedule cannot be the same for, say, teens and those above the age of 20.

The biggest difference between kids and adults is, obviously, biological. 

While children’s minds and bodies are still in their growing phases, older individuals have already reached their cognitive peak. It is for this reason that kids’ learning tends to be dependent. They rely on the teacher’s authority and adopt the presented rules and facts as universally true. Adults, on the other hand, prefer to take control of their learning processes. They don’t just want to know the grammar, but they need to analyze it, contextualize it, and see how it benefits their agenda. 

Then, of course, there is the impact of when and where the learning is taking place. For example, knowing that the circadian rhythm impacts both learning and memory as well as the fact that teens go through a circadian shift, it’s easy to conclude that external factors will affect the education process just as well as the internal ones.

But, perhaps the biggest influencing factor on adults’ ability to learn languages is interest and motivation.

While foreign language learning often seems like a chore for kids, for adults, it’s much more likely to be a part of their interests. In fact, a 2014 survey showed that as many as 70% of people between the ages of 14-24 wanted to learn a foreign language, with the top three reasons being career advancement, communication, and exploring new cultures

Considering the science proving that interests make up some of the most powerful motivators in education, and it becomes clear that adults stand a great chance of becoming fluent in a new language, thanks to the simple fact that they choose to do so.

How to Ensure an Efficient Language Learning Experience

Having insight into the data behind learning, as well as knowing that adults can become proficient in a foreign language, it’s not a bad idea to consider the factors that make up a good language course.

For one, becoming fluent requires consistent work. Secondly, it requires solid habits and techniques that promote knowledge acquisition and retention. Finally, fluency necessitates active use and practice, which is why individual learning can only take you so far. At one point or another, you will have to start talking to fellow speakers, whether face-to-face or online.

So, if you’ve set your sights on becoming proficient in a foreign language, the best thing you can do for yourself is to get to it. Set aside your preconceived notions about not being able to learn due to age, and start working on your plan. Yes, it will take time, but it will definitely be worth it in the end.

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