Learning Another Language As an Adult

(photo credit: Leonardo Toshiro Okubo/Unsplash)

(This is an updated version of a post I wrote in May of 2018)

Brett and I have once again been thinking a lot about taking up another foreign language in preparation for our future travels. It makes sense for us to have some basics in another language if we’re going to travel and stay in another country for long period of time. I know enough Japanese to not get lost, buy things, and so forth, and found the basic French I learned last time helped us to get around in that country as well if for nothing more than reading signs and simple directions. Current plans are that Brett will go with Greek as he studied it for a while back in his navy days, but I’m torn between German and Italian, both of which I’ve studied before. I have spent a considerable amount of time (like years) trying to learn Japanese, only to still 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. That’s not how language learning works.

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, and the reality is it 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 themself as a learner; and 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.

One’s self-image when learning a new language can sometimes take some serious blows. 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. 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 how many hours of study it takes to reach General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (Level S3) and Reading (Level R3) in different languages. Notice that for a Class 1 language it takes less than six months to reach this level; to reach the same level with a Class 5 languages it takes closer to two years! This is honestly not meant to be discouraging, but provide a realistic look at what you’re taking on.
  • 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 did get my thesis topic 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 (as an example, I took weekly spelling tests from first through the eighth grade because much of English spelling and pronunciation is based on memorization, even for native speakers), and the same 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 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, If you’re a native speaker of English, one other interesting side effect of learning another language 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.

12 thoughts on “Learning Another Language As an Adult

  1. Interesting info! My sweet little granddaughter has a German father, and he speaks German to her every day. My DD speaks English and they also speak English to one another. The baby loves books, and several of her books are in German and English. One day her dad started reciting a book to her in German (that they had clearly read many, many times…ha!). When they go to a certain point (with no book in hand), she started to make the noises of the animals on each page. That’s when I realized he was reciting a book. She definitely knows words in both languages. It will be interesting to see what she retains as she grows up. Her schooling is unlikely to be in German, so it will be a question of what she hears at home, I guess.

    My mom grew up in a home where Finnish and English were spoken. My grandparents spoke Finnish when they didn’t want the kids to know what they were saying, but of course they picked up some of it. She started school in a one room schoolhouse with many children who knew only Finnish — no English at all. As an adult, she decided to take a Finnish class to relearn some of it. She was amazed by how difficult it is and the structure of the language and word formation. I’m not sure there is anyone left in her life that speaks Finnish with her now. 

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    1. Kids pick up languages so quickly. I love that our grandkids are already bilingual – it was really something to listen to our grandson switch back and forth between English and Japanese (Japanese with his friends, English with us) – no hesitation at all. Our granddaughter is there as well now. They both attend English language schools, but speak Japanese with our daughter-in-law (our son ALWAYS spoke English to them).

      The U.S. has a terrible attitude toward foreign language learning, in my opinion. We feel very lucky that our girls were able to attend a bilingual school and start learning a second language beginning in kindergarten. All three can still speak understand, and read Mandarin (YaYu is the most fluent though – it’s her minor at BMC). Our son was also exposed to a second language beginning in middle school (French) and was easily able to add Japanese in high school – he picked up lots of skills necessary to learn a second language. In other countries students are exposed to a second language much, much earlier than our students are, and can leave high school fluent in two, sometimes three, languages. Too much to hope for here though.

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  2. This is a fascinating topic and I could probably write a book about the challenges of mastering a second language just by using my own experience. I moved to the US when I was 41 and although I thought I knew English ( and French I may add) from learning it in school, speaking it day in and out has been a constant challenge. It took me almost 8 years to transition to thinking in English because I was so old. Until then, as you probably know, I would think in Romanian and translate into English, which meant that I was slow, and made lots of mistakes in formulating the sentences. My brain was so exhausted at the end of each day and of course, the fact that I was subjected to criticism, mockery, and derogatory comments didn’t help much. I’m doing better now, I still make mistakes but I made peace with myself, I know I’m a work in progress and I can only do my best. I’ve also noticed that people who are the quickest to make fun of me can’t articulate a single word in any other language, so I just let them bask in their own ignorance these days.

    Being bilingual/multilingual is wonderful, and I admire you for recognizing the benefits of learning different languages. Your particular family situation, with so much exposure to different cultures and languages, definitely consolidated your knowledge about different languages and the importance and benefit to be able to communicate with other people than your kin. Your daughters and grandchildren are fortunate to have that exposure. My parents taught me that the one who speaks a different language is twice smarter and I truly believe that.

    Babies start to acquire language by imitating the sounds the adults around them make, as early as while they are still in the womb. Young children are capable of learning multiple languages through the same process, just by having people around them speaking different languages. There is a YouTuber from Azerbaidjan and her daughter who is 5 speaks fluently in 5 languages because her mom speaks with her in 5 languages. Amazing!! For adults, acquiring a second language is a different process. A mature brain will look first for analogies and familiar patterns with the native language before transitioning to new patterns. Learning a language with a different alphabet adds another layer of complexity to the process.

    For you, I would imagine that learning German would be easier since English is a Germanic language. Italian is a Latin language and has, of course, a different structure. However, if you like the challenge, you can go for it. Italian is very close to Romanian. When we were in Italy I could watch their wonderful shows and understand what they were laughing about🤣Whatever you decide, it will make you smarter than you already are. Bon courage, as a French would say!

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    1. Americans are notoriously intolerant of those who do not speak English “perfectly” or with an accent, especially with people of color. I am so sorry that you have had to experience some of this intolerance as you have worked hard to acquire English. And exhausting is the perfect word for those trying to communicate in a second language as they learn! I have so much respect for your efforts, and am humbled by the work you have done to acquire English, especially as an adult. I nor anyone else “owns’ the English language by virtue of being a native speaker; it is a world language and I wish more of us would honor those who work so hard to learn it.

      We always told our children (and I told my students) that they would be immanently more hirable if they spoke another language besides English, and it has made a difference for every one of them. An employer will almost always choose the candidate that can communicate in a second language as well as English.

      German is tricky for English speakers because of the grammar, although many words are recognizable. English is such a mishmash of so many languages though – when I studied French I was amazed by the connections between it and English, and how quickly I picked up the vocabulary. Same for other Romance languages although Portuguese was difficult. I still can’t decide which language to pick, but I like the exercise language learning brings to my brain.

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      1. What I find fascinating is that languages, in general, are living entities: they grow, borrow from neighbors or other languages, retire certain words while bringing others to the front stage. It’s a constantly evolving process.
        These days English has become so prevalent all over the world and I believe that the explosion of personal computers from Microsoft has contributed a great deal to this widespread phenomenon. In the beginning, the operating systems for these computers were in English thus everyone who wanted to use a personal computer had to learn English regardless of where they lived on this Planet. Later Microsoft came up with variants of Windows in other languages, but small markets (countries) still rely on the English version of Windows.
        I tried to learn German at some point, but I lost my enthusiasm. I can still remember basic words like greeting phrases, some household items, numbers, and colors. Maybe one day I’ll get back to it…

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      2. English is truly a world language, due in large part to, as you point out, the spread of computers. The explosion of air travel worldwide also hastened the spread. I took a course in World Englishes and it was amazing to learn how English is used throughout the world today and how different it is in different places. As a native speaker I can understand what’s being said or written *most of the time* when English is used elsewhere, but not always. We saw some signs in India that were clearly in English but we had no idea initially what they meant – or guide had to “translate.”

        I took German for one year in my first year of high school. I did OK but didn’t like the teacher, and transferred into a Spanish class in the middle of the second year. Fifty years later I still remember how to count to 20 in German, various greetings and such, and how to say “I don’t understand” but that’s all. I’m sort of curious whether it would come back if I study it again.

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  3. Like Niculuna, watching TV or listening to the radio is great for learning a new language.
    Scott’s first foreign language was Chinese with the military—at 41! Like Japanese, he got to grade school level and threw in the towel.
    Our kids have several languages under their belts, Pashtu, Spanish, basic Chinese…but are not fluent in any, anymore. Me? I can find a bathroom, be polite and ask my way in a lot of languages. We are working on Spanish (Mexican not Colombian), but know it will become SO much easier when we get to the West.

    I learned two interesting facts when I last went through ELL. English does have loads of rules, we just don’t bother to teach them. And. Kids who learn a second language between seven and twelve will learn it with the accent of the teacher (hence so many with British or American accents- the greatest exporters of English language).
    What ever you choose, have fun with it! I love German- it is really fun. Italians love you to attempt their language. My attempt at Hebrew for our last trip was a giggle once we got there.

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    1. My only problem with using the TV or radio is that they are one-sided; that is, there is no feedback. They are great for listening practice though. I need feedback when I learn a language which is why online courses only carry me so far.

      I’m with you on having limited ability in several languages: Please? Thank you. Good morning/day/evening. How much? Where’s the bathroom? I don’t understand. Those kinds of things. Jack of all trades but master of none is me.

      English is impossible. I took a grammar instruction course when I was getting my degree and had to review a chapter in a text book – I chose one on using the articles (a/an/the). The book I reviewed had 54 rules!! Who can learn and remember that many? Especially when I had maybe 20 minutes of instruction on when to use “a” versus “an” in the second grade and no lessons ever about how to use “the.” How to explain the “do support” when asking questions or making a negative? And English spelling – my god. Daughter vs. laughter. “I before E except after C” except for neighbor, weight, and loads of other words. And on and on and on . . . .

      Some people learn languages easier and faster than others. I call them language savants. I am not one of those people, and I have a lot of patience with those attempting to learn another language for any purpose.

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  4. It’s a long weekend here (Queens Birthday!) and I’m catching up on your posts.

    I’ve always wanted to me multilingual. When we have our year off, one of my daily things will be to study German for 30 minutes a day. I have a secret goal to study German at uni.

    I will be starting our travel lists soon for next year’s road trips. Places to see, explore, stay, adventures, tourist activities. Sadly, as we are, and will continue to be, a hermit nation, everyone is on the road and we will probably have to book things way in advance. Still, love good lists.

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    1. When I don’t hear from you I figure you are busy, busy, busy!

      I wish I had had the opportunity to start a foreign language earlier than high school – after watching our son and daughters acquire a second language with the help of an early start, I think it might have made a difference for me. Also, I never had to learn a language (well, except to get into college and to finish up my M.A.), and I think I’m someone who needs that sort of motivation.

      I can’t wait to start booking our travels, although international travel will most likely be more last minute to make sure it’s safe and that Americans are approved to enter. In the meantime it’s fun looking for those places to see and explore, check out rentals, etc. It’s my happy place.

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      1. Only private colleges seems to require a foreign language for admission. More and more are though, which is a good thing, but overall, very few Americans study a foreign language.

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