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Overcoming Obstacles and Plateaus: Why Second Language Learning Is Harder for Adults

Almost no learning process in the world is a straight upward trajectory — regardless of whether you’re trying to master tennis or learn a second language. 

Instead of things going smoothly, you’re more likely to encounter ups and downs. And sometimes, you may even experience regressions before reaching your language learning goal. Plus, like most students, you can also expect to come across multiple obstacles or hit a plateau.

But does this mean that overcoming obstacles and plateaus isn’t possible? On the contrary. Still, as an adult learner, you’ll want to understand why you’re experiencing your particular hurdle and how to overcome it.

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Why Second Language Learning Is Harder for Adults

If you look at the science of learning a new language, you’ll find that linguists differentiate between two modes of adopting a foreign tongue. 

On the one hand, small children — up until the age of approximately five — acquire language naturally. This process of language acquisition is spontaneous and relatively easy. Language learning, on the other hand, is an involved process that necessitates structured effort, exposure, and time.

Unsurprisingly, scientists have found that when a person starts learning a language affects adoption capacity as well. 

According to a group of researchers from MIT, the Critical Period for language learning lasts all the way up until the ages of 17 or 18, when children/teens are still very skilled at adopting grammatical rules and vocabulary. Still, unless a person started lessons before age 10, they’ll be less likely to reach native proficiency.

So, what does this data mean for adults trying to maximize their pace of learning or looking for tips for overcoming obstacles and plateaus?

Well, it indicates a couple of things. First and foremost, the simple fact that adults learn languages with more difficulty than kids proves that persistence and patience are key. But, as you try to do everything you can to reach your language learning goals, the data above also reveals the need to develop and adopt effective hacks for overcoming obstacles or plateaus. 

The Best Ways to Overcome Second Language Learning Hurdles

When it comes to giving yourself a much-needed push over an obstacle on your language-learning journey, there are a few approaches you must be willing to take:

  1. Adopt and consistently implement the correct learning tools and strategies. 

  2. Practice the right focusing techniques to get the most out of your daily practice sessions. 

  3. Practice self-care and properly fuel so your body and mind are prepared to adopt, process, and retain new information with ease.

Revising Your Learning Tools and Strategies

The first step toward overcoming a second language learning plateau is returning to the why behind all your hard work. 

Review your goals and current approach. That way, you can effectively identify gaps in your learning process and uncover opportunities for supplementing your education with the right strategies.

For example, your objective might be to become conversationally fluent. However, this will be impossible to achieve if you are only working on grammar. You have to augment your learning program with at least some lessons focusing on communication.

Similarly, if you’re not making sufficient progress, you might need to review your learning schedule. According to research, spacing out repetition instead of massing learning sessions together yields better long-term effects. In other words, learning for 45 minutes every day will inevitably help you make more progress than doing two three-hour sessions per week.

Finally, consider changing up the learning tools and activities you’re using. If you’ve hit a plateau, it might be a good idea to find new ways of language learning. For example, you might want to try and practice strategic writing. Or, you could give shadowing a go. Even consuming content in your target foreign language or immersing yourself in it by traveling can be excellent ways to supplement your daily practice.

And remember, even a small change in your routine can help you get out of a rut, so don’t be afraid to experiment.

Embracing Effective Focusing Techniques

Put yourself in a state of flow by implementing the right techniques to help you focus better.

One of the biggest problems with learning a new language as an adult is that a lot of your mental capacity is already taken up by everyday tasks and worries. You must do everything you can to find the mental clarity needed to acquire and retain new information.

For example, doing some breathwork before your lessons might turn out to work in your favor. According to research, box breathing can be an effective tool for boosting concentration. So, if you can add it to your routine, you might experience the boost in cognitive capacity you need.

Or, if breathing exercises and meditation aren’t your thing, you can use music and sounds to your advantage. Some research into high-frequency binaural beats has found that they aid concentration. And if your primary obstacle isn’t your ability to focus but finding motivation, just listen to some uplifting tunes for 10-15 minutes before your study sessions. According to new research, this is more than enough to purposefully affect your emotional state, so why not use it to your advantage?

Finally, if you think your obstacles come from your inability to concentrate, you could always turn to cognitive performance and memory-enhancing supplements. You’ll do perfectly well with caffeine from a cup of coffee (or green tea). Or, if you’re looking for something more advanced, look for supplements that contain substances such as L-theanine or Vinpocetine.

Giving Yourself Time to Rest When You Feel Depleted

Lastly, if you’ve hit a learning plateau or feel like you’re not making progress, consider whether you might benefit from taking some time off.

Just like with physical exercise, mental work requires rest days as well. That doesn’t necessarily mean taking a month off and doing nothing. But perhaps it might not be a bad idea to give yourself permission to take things easy every once in a while.

First and foremost, your cognitive rest routine needs to include proper sleep hygiene. Science has confirmed time and again that a significant part of your brain processing and storing information happens while you’re asleep. For that reason, getting enough shut-eye is crucial for overcoming potential obstacles.

Secondly, if you want to make more progress without leading yourself to burnout, combine intense learning with activities you find enjoyable and energizing. They can be anything you like — watching TV shows, listening to music, or finding opportunities to converse with native speakers. But the moment you feel like you’re doing too much and are becoming fatigued (or even drained), back off.

Ultimately, understand that taking a day or two off every week will prevent you from becoming overwhelmed. But if you work yourself to exhaustion, the recovery period could take weeks, months, or even years. It will just make it more difficult to get back on track with your second language learning journey.

Wrapping Up

As an adult, second language learning can often feel like mental gymnastics. Especially if you encounter an unexpected obstacle or hit a plateau.

Nonetheless, remember that making progress isn’t something you can force. To make gains, keep working at a solid pace, explore new ways of learning, and give yourself permission to take extra time with challenging areas. That way, your progress will stay consistent. And you won’t hit your breaking point. 

And remember, second language learning is hard — especially as an adult. So don’t hesitate to find a tool that will give you access to tutor support. A bit of personalized guidance can make a difference in helping you reach your goals sooner rather than later.

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