Language Learning for Adults

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, especially since I’ve been studying (and struggling to learn) French now for many months in preparation for our travels there later this year. I also spent a considerable amount of time (like years) trying to learn Japanese, only to find myself with an ability less than a two year-old. Because my professional  background is in adult language learning and acquisition you would think I’d have this all figured out by now and would know all sorts of tricks to make learning faster and easier, but sadly, no.

Children pick up new languages very easily, at least the spoken part, typically because they are usually far more immersed in a new language than most adults (i.e. in school all day with other native speakers). If children learn a second language before the age of twelve they usually become fluent speakers with no accent. Although adults learn a language in the same steps as children, how adults process what they are learning is different based on cognitive differences and other previous learning experiences. The reality is it just takes adults longer to acquire a second language. The good news is it’s not impossible.

When adults are learning a second or foreign language, there are three main aspects that come into play: 1) motivation, or the reasons for learning another language; 2) how an adult views themselves as a learner; 3) who an adult sees themselves to be when they speak another language. All three of these are important, but any one of them on their own can have a profound effect on the learning experience. Being aware of these forces and the roles they play can help adults through the process.

Motivation falls into two classes, intrinsic or extrinsic. That is, motivation to learn another language either comes from within or from without. Are you learning a new language because you want to or because you have to or need to? How strong is the desire or need? A combination of both intrinsic and extrinsic reasons for learning is best, and together can provide powerful motivation to push through difficult stretches and improve.

Language learning has often proven to be a sticky problem for adults who have always seen themselves as successful learners or talented in other respects. Recognizing that language learning calls on a whole different set of skills than learning math or history, or participating in a sport or hobby, and that it might not be as easy for you as you thought (or as fun) is an important step in staying motivated and continuing to learn.

Finally, how do you see yourself when you imagine yourself speaking another language? As a native speaker of English, I view myself as a confident, skilled adult when I speak, read, write or listen to English, able to know what to say in almost any situation or figure out what someone else is saying or inferring. With a new language I often find myself with less ability than a small child, making lots of (sometimes embarrassing) mistakes, sometimes unable to order in a restaurant or ask directions, let alone manage any other social or professional situations. It’s very humbling, and can also be humiliating at times. One’s self-image when learning a new language can sometimes take some serious blows. Also, there’s the aspect to self of fitting in socially and culturally where the new language is spoken. Knowing that these feelings are perfectly normal can help you stick with language learning.

Based on my many years of teaching English to adults learners, here are some tips for making language learning more productive and less painful:

  • Communication should be the goal. Not fluency, not perfection, although you can strive for those. Can another person understand what you’re trying to say or write and communicate back to you? That’s what really matters.
  • Know how difficult a language is to learn. Russian or Chinese or Finnish are going to be w-a-y more difficult for an English speaker to learn than Spanish or French. All language learning takes time and effort, but if you want to learn one of the more difficult languages, give yourself even more time. Although the goal may be much less than professional proficiency, here is the Foreign Language Institute difficulty ranking for English speakers, and the time it takes to reach Speaking 3: General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (S3) and Reading 3: General Professional Proficiency in Reading (R3) in different languages.
  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Seriously, mistakes are how we learn, especially in language learning! Think of all the mistakes children make when they’re learning to speak. Adults go through the same steps, and mistakes will happen. The important thing is to keep trying to produce the language in some form rather than shut down. An ideal instructor (or online program) will always model the language correctly for you when you make a mistake and give chances to try again. It’s also important to find a classroom and instructor where you feel safe to make mistakes. My Japanese instructors in college didn’t go for safety and it was an incredibly stressful and miserable experience. I remember nothing from those classes other than wanting them to end (although I was able to get a Master’s thesis out of the experience!).
  • Be prepared to memorize. Memory is a very big part of language learning. We memorize constantly when we learn our own language (I took weekly spelling tests through the eighth grade because much of English spelling and pronunciation is based on memorization, even for native speakers), and it will be true for any other language. It’s more difficult to remember things when we’re older because we’re carrying around and having to deal with so much more information in our brains than we did when we were younger. The best way to remember what you’re learning is to practice. Every day.
  • Don’t sweat pronunciation. The ability to speak another language without an accent ends at about age 12. That’s when our mouths and oral muscles “solidify” around our native language. Not worrying about pronunciation doesn’t mean not trying to pronunciate a new language correctly in order to be understood, but sounding like a native speaker doesn’t need to be the goal.
  • Find ways to expose yourself to the language. Learning French in France is going to be a whole lot easier than trying to learn it in the U.S. Why? Because learners are immersed in the language there – it can’t be escaped and has to be dealt with. In your own country, once you’re out of the classroom it’s difficult to find opportunities to practice and use the language you’re learning. Immersion experiences here in the U.S. do exist though. Shop in international markets and read the labels or ask questions in the language you’re learning. Pick up a newspaper or magazine in the new language, go through it and see what can be figured out. Watch foreign films or TV shows in the new language without subtitles. For example, when our girls were learning Chinese, they found that all their favorite Disney Channel shows could be watched online in Mandarin, so they got lots of extra listening comprehension practice from those. Go to a church service where the language you’re learning is spoken (they exist). See if you can set up conversation experiences through local colleges, or hire a tutor and have them provide a weekly immersion session. I was sometimes able to match up my students, if they had time, with an English speaker who was trying to learn their language. They’d spend one hour together in one language, the second hour in the other language.

Knowing another language opens doors for understanding a new and/or different culture, but language learning is a process that takes time, in some cases LOTS of time. It’s important to remind yourself, especially if you’re struggling or on the fence about sticking with it, that you didn’t learn English (or any other native language) quickly as a child either. Unless necessary for professional reasons, fluency doesn’t need to be the goal of language learning; rather, you should strive to learn enough of a new language to communicate effectively, and as a means to better understand and enhance  experiences in a different culture.

Finally, one other interesting side effect of language learning is that you will probably learn more about English as well, and what a crazy, difficult, and sometimes impossible language it is. I thank my stars every day that English is my native language, and that I didn’t have to learn it as a second or foreign language. My years of teaching gave me an immense amount of respect for anyone trying to learn English, a daunting task if there ever was one.


11 thoughts on “Language Learning for Adults

  1. Very insightful post In college I could read French but never speak it. Without practice even that small ability disappeared. The odd thing I discovered when I was on vacation in England is that within two weeks I had picked up some of our guide’s speech pattern. I think full immersion in the culture and language is the only way to go. When you are living in Japan, do you find it easier to understand the language?


    1. If “you don’t use it, you lose it” is a reality with language. But, a lot of it can come back very quickly if you start using it again. It’s much harder for the written part to come back though, especially so if the writing system is different than you’re own. If you can do it, immersion is the way to go.

      I don’t really understand Japanese any better when I’m in Japan. I know enough just to get by. I get lots of reading practice though, especially hiragana and katakana. I can remember some of the kanji, but usually only when it’s city names or places (which is helpful for not getting lost!).


  2. Really interesting info. My college French teacher told us the only way he finally really “got it” was to move to France for the summer and into an area where he didn’t have an English option. I never did that, but I get his point.

    My mother grew up in a home where Finnish was spoken (along with English) and attended a one room country school where many entering kindergarten students spoke only Finnish. She still retains some memory of that language and took a Finnish class in adulthood to refresh it. She was amazed by how challenging the language was and how much she had forgotten or never known, particularly the written language. When she showed me some of it, I couldn’t imagine taking that on as an adult.

    My father’s parents were French Québécois and my dad took my grandmother back to Quebec when she was old. They stopped at country church to look for my grandfather’s baptism records, and the ladies working there spoke only French. My dad said she fell right back into conversation with them like she had never left. He was amazed, as she spoke English his entire life.

    BTW, if you think a marriage between a Finnish woman and French Québécois man was interesting, you are right. LOL


    1. Memory is a funny thing. I read a lot about it when I was researching my thesis, and the best metaphor I ever read was to think of memory as a room with a BIG worktable and a filing cabinet. When things come into the room they go onto the worktable, but often they get covered with other things, or pushed off the table and forgotten. Things we want to remember go into the filing cabinet, but as we age it becomes stuffed and overflowing and we don’t always know where to look to find things. But, sometimes we do know exactly where to go, which is why language can come back even if it hasn’t been spoken or used for a long, long time. I think the key thing to remember is that there is a difference between learned and acquired. It’s very likely your Mom learned Finnish and used it, but never acquired it (put it in the filing cabinet). Your father’s mother did, and knew where to go and find it when she needed it.

      Finnish and Quebecois is an interesting marriage combination, but it obviously worked out fine!


  3. I agreed with your tips, Laura. I’d encourage adult learners to relax and not be hard on themselves when they speak the new language. Or even if they don’t plan to converse in a foreign language, knowing basic phrases or vocabulary helps to be more confident in a new surrounding. I picked up Spanish with the goal to be able to converse and understand the basics when I travel to Spanish-speaking countries. It has served me very well when I was in Costa Rica and Spain last year, and Chile this year.


    1. Yes, it’s a good idea for adults to honestly ask themselves why they want to learn a new language, and be honest with themselves about how long it’s going to take and what sort of effort they’re going to have to put into the process. If they don’t intend to live in the foreign country, or need the language, then relax and enjoy the learning process as much as possible.

      I read advice from one travel writer who said to get a phrase book and know 10 necessary phrases cold (where’s the bathroom, etc.), but to add one silly phrase to your repetoire (My llama loves chocolate!). That way if you’re in a tough situation you can usually get locals to start laughing which breaks the tension and gives you the opportunity to start over. I think it’s great advice!


  4. After I took studied Spanish for two years in hs and two in college, I made a decision–I was not going to learn the way I was taught. It was futile and not how language is used. I focused on lots of vocabulary. Most of the time I just use the infinitive of the verb and toss my hand over my shoulder for the past and say manana for the future. I look people in the eyes and sort of beg them to understand. My TESOL professor approved…lol.

    Sometimes, the speakers of Spanish laugh at me openly or covertly and I laugh with them. Sometimes, the correct my pronunciation and I say the word until I get it right. I thank them for helping me with the word. I am totally free of embarrassment when communicating in Spanish. They love it when I say help me in Spanish.

    In the middle school classroom when I subbed, I said ‘sit down’ to a Hispanic child leaving his seat. He was stunned. When they spoke to me in Spanish with my encouragement, they laughed because I said, “Despacio.” slowly. They had fun saying one. word. at. a. time. to. me. Knowing even a few handy words is useful even in the US.

    I was just explaining yesterday that communication, not perfection, is the goal of learning a language.

    I was able to help two Romanians translate into English a story the mother had written in French. They were surprised I could read any French. I did not know I could, either. When they spoke in their L1, I could understand lots of the Romanian. She had a PhD in Linguistics.

    I was teaching English to a Japanese woman and her daughter. I said hajemamatsu to the woman when I asked them to lower the ac. They were so excited I could speak any Japanese. But, I refused to speak it again since I was teaching them.

    I studied Greek and Japanese in addition to Spanish and Latin. I think I have written all this before on your blog. I never got to the German because the college here does not teach it and I prefer a classroom. I heard of Duolingo that is supposed to be excellent.


    1. Your experiences exemplify that communication, not fluency or perfection, should be the goal – you can go far using circumlocution or even just a few words to make yourself understood. I never allowed or spoke any other languages in my ESL classrooms, and worked hard to pair students from different native languages so they would have to communicate in English too. It worked most of the time.

      I tried Duolingo, and I know it has worked great for others, but two things bothered me. First, I started with Portuguese, but they only offer Brazilian Portuguese, not European – and they are different! Second, I found lots of their practice examples to be inauthentic; that is, something I would never say in real life. I’m a big proponent of using and teaching language that’s actually spoken rather than “textbook examples.” But that’s just me. I have been using Memrise for over a year, and am enjoying it. Lots and lots of vocabulary, but I’m surprised at what I can remember, understand and produce these days. Well, except for speaking, but that will come.


      1. I like authentic language as much as possible. I would never require someone to learn to answer “Where are you going?” with “I am going to the store.” We would answer, “to the store.”

        I was in WM when a call went out for someone who spoke Spanish. The woman had left her purse in a buggy in the parking lot and it was gone when she came back to get it. The policeman did not speak one word of Spanish. I made so many mistakes, like talking to the woman about her esposa. She looked alarmed and corrected me…esposo. (I knew better!) Finally, she just started speaking English, broken, but understandable. I think she finally had confidence when she saw how little and how poorly I spoke Spanish.

        She is probably still laughing at me…lol. I am. I told her how well she spoke Spanish. “Su ingles muy Buena.”

        I happened to be in the store when they wanted her several days later. I spoke to her on the phone and she came in. Later, she found me and thanked me. I told her she spoke English very well…in English and Spanish. I told her to speak more because I could understand her very well.

        All my life, I have been the person to help the speaker of another language. I don’t volunteer, but friends just tell me they do not understand the person. I am the one who helps stroke patients express what it is the person wishes to say. I think I have an ear for speech or something.


  5. I’ve studied French, Spanish and Italian over the years through high school and college and I’ve always loved studying languages! I’ve studied French the longest but feel like maybe I know more Spanish but that may be due to exposure through my jobs over the years. I’ve been wanting to take some Spanish classes at the local community college but time and money get in the way.

    My daughter has a close friend from the Philippines who of course speaks fluent Tagalog and now English. She also has a friend who is also almost 100% fluent in mandarin Chinese due to the charter school she went to.

    And if I could have one superpower it would be to be fluent in any or all languages I wanted!
    Hands down!
    Anon in mass


    1. I’d like to have that superpower as well!

      In my opinion, one of the greatest disservices we do our children in this country is not require them to start learning a second language beginning in elementary school, when kids are primed to learn and use another language. I am SO GRATEFUL that our girls were able to attend a full-immersion Mandarin-English program – it has made a huge difference. It’s humbling too when you meet students from other countries who are bi- or tri-lingual because learning English and another one or two languages is required, right from the start.

      Some people too are what I call “language savants;” that is, they pick up languages very easily. Two of our three daughters are, and our son is too. My sister also picks up languages easily. I wish it were true for me as well, but sadly no. I am enjoying learning French though, and plan to keep up with it if possible once the Big Adventure is over and we settle down somewhere. I used to be able to speak Spanish at a low intermediate level (and understood it at a higher level), but I’ve lost most of that now. Japanese remains my nemesis.


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