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5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning

jason-oxenham-ceo February 15, 2017, 8:44 pm
  • "I gave up studying philosophy. After all, when will I ever need it in my daily life?"
  • "There's no way I'll ever sing like Adele, so what's the point in even taking lessons?"
  • "What's the use of learning tennis if I won't even be good enough to compete?"
What do you think about these excuses? If you're like me and love learning simply for the sake of learning, then they probably sound pretty weak. Unfortunately, countless language learners use similar excuses every day.

Let's be honest: we've all heard (or maybe even used) some of the following excuses:
 
  • "I didn't start learning when I was little, so why start now?"
  • "I just don't think my brain could ever get used to learning a new language."
  • "I'm too old to learn a language."
  • "I'll never have a perfect Spanish accent, so why even bother?"
  • "I'm just not good with languages."
One of the most frequent excuses is probably "I'm too old." After all, I even thought that when I started learning Spanish at age 16. After all, how could I even begin to compete with some my classmates who had spoken both languages since they were little?

Flash forward a few years, and I'm living in Spain and speaking Spanish (and even Catalan) on a daily basis. And I'm just a small success story compared to others. Adults throughout the world - from Russia to Kansas and everywhere in between - have realized that they can be successful language learners and enjoy doing it.

So why are we so hard on ourselves? What do we need to know to prepare ourselves for language learning?

Let's take a look at 5 essential things you need to know about adults and language learning.

1. Yes, your "old" brain CAN learn a new language.    

First and foremost, it's essential to know that adults can learn a new language, no matter how old they are. Even 80-year-olds can learn a new language. Amazingly, we can even learn better than children in some aspects.

While it is true that children are able to reach higher language proficiency sooner than adults because their brains are more flexible to the new rules, adults typically progress through the earlier stages of language learning faster than children. This is because adults typically approach language learning with an adult problem-solving process, which allows them to identify the rules and patterns that make picking up a new language easier.

Not only can adults pick up the first stages of a language faster than children thanks to their logical approach, one study on second language pronunciation even found that some learners who started as adults scored just as well as native speakers on a pronunciation test.

That's right: it's even possible for adults to have great pronunciation.

Since bilinguals have an easier time learning a third language, research has shown that adult learners who are literate in both of their languages and who possess meta-linguistic knowledge (knowledge about language and how it works) find learning a third language significantly easier.

You can learn a language no matter how old you are.

2. Adults are more motivated to learn.

If you're learning a language as an adult, odds are that you're probably doing it for personal reasons. Maybe you're learning Chinese to be able to immerse yourself in Chinese culture for your next vacation, learning Spanish so you can talk more with your neighbors, or Russian to be able to speak with your significant other.

Either way, you're doing it more for you than for anyone else.

This is extremely important to keep in mind, since motivation is one of the most crucial elements to language learning success.  

Staying motivated is the number one reason for language learning success, and lack of motivation is also the number one reason for failure. Adults are able to harness and focus this motivation to their benefit.

3. Vocabulary acquisition has no age.

One of the most important parts of learning a new language is learning all of the new vocabulary. That being said, here's some more good news for adult language learners: age does not determine your ability to learn vocabulary.

Here's what does: Thanks to our motivation, ability to control our learning environment and developed learning abilities, we can use our knowledge and experience to learn vocabulary faster.

We can focus on learning the most practical words first, identify helpful patterns, take advantage of cognates, develop our own mnemonic devices, keep a helpful vocabulary notebook and maximize our time and motivation.

4. Adults have more control over their learning environment.

We adults have something crucial that children do not: control over our daily lives. If we want to reward ourselves with candy every time we practice our Spanish at the grocery store, we can do that. If we want to wake up at 4:00 am to Skype with a friend in Korea, we go for it.

We also have control over our learning environments. That means that we can experiment and discover how we learn best and then take advantage of it. We don't need to rely on others to tell us what to do or how to do it.

If we learn better in a classroom, we can start taking classes. If we learn better sitting in our pajamas in front of our laptop, we can get ourselves a new pair of cozy pajamas. If we learn better singing German at the top of our lungs in our car, we can go for it.

All it takes is a bit of trial and error to find the environment that works best.

5. The more we learn, the easier it becomes.    

One of the reasons why adults supposedly learn slower than children is simply because we're out of practice. After all, it's probably been a while since those good old days of algebra and geography.

Every time we learn something new, our brain creates a new synapse, or connection. This increases the plasticity of our brains and is one of the many benefits of language learning. This makes it easier to retain the skills you've learned, improve them, and continue learning new things.

That's also why it's easier to re-learn old skills more quickly than it is to learn new skills (something that comes in very handy when you land in Italy and it's time to start speaking after it's been a while, I might add). It all comes back to you.

The more we learn, the more accustomed our brains become to learning and the easier it becomes. We'll see results more quickly, we'll gain momentum, and we'll become more hooked on language learning.

Before we know it, it will become a fun and rewarding lifelong process.

It's All Up to You

Whether you're 18 or 80, you can learn a language at any age. If you want to learn a language or improve your language skills, the only thing that's getting in your way is your own mindset.

As Henry Ford once said, "Whether you think you can, or you think you can't--you're right."
Always remember that learning a language is a process that takes practice and becomes easier with time.
In the end, YOU decide how quickly you become fluent in a language. With the right attitude, dedication, situation, and motivation, any language is within your reach.

By Andrea Reisenauer, guest blogger. Andrea Reisenauer is a language lover, ESL teacher Rocket Languages fan with a Master's degree in Translation. She speaks Spanish, Catalan, and Italian and is currently studying French.
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning
Meages February 16, 2017, 3:39 am
This article is so true.  I am not only older but am a stroke survivor.  Learning a language is a great way to  keep your brain healthy and it really helps me tremendously. I really enjoy spending time each day learning new words and phrases, and I get a sense of pride when I can look back and see how far I have come.  What were once tongue twisters I can pronounce with ease.  It all motivates me to continue just for the sake of it!
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning
Nick Hoyt February 16, 2017, 4:57 am
Great article! I especially like #5 since I have experienced it myself. It was WAY harder to learn when I first started on Japanese, than it is now. I pick up new vocabulary and phrases with ease nowadays and it's just a matter of putting in the time. Thanks!
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning
Steven-W15 February 16, 2017, 2:54 pm
I do find that the more you learn, the easier it is to learn more.  And techniques do give us adults a step up in learning. Let's be clear though:  kids are way more proficient when it comes to pronunciation and memory. I remember learning French at 29 with a competent accent; this acquaintance came up to me, pointed out this little (foreign) kid and said, "you know, he even speaks with a "neuchâtelois" accent."  I resisted hitting the kid (as best as I can remember). And have you ever tried playing memory games with these little guys? A total thrashing. Embarrassment. Really.
 
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning
jparik February 16, 2017, 3:55 pm
She speaks Spanish, Catalan, and Italian and is currently studying French.

Well, it is the same group of languages, not so hard, try Czech, for example, it is challenge 
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning
KelllaurBailar February 16, 2017, 5:28 pm
When I was in second grade, I remember having a Thai friend who spoke 5 languages. It can be done at any number, and I think if we were to learn languages throughout our lives we could reap the benefits of all age groups in language-learning. And children usually have the luxury of not overthinking anything. Great article.
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning
the-hefay February 17, 2017, 4:16 pm

Many years ago I had Spanish in High School and really enjoyed it.  I wish I had kept up with it, but instead I let it go.  In 2015 I really dug into the Rocket Spanish level 1 and later moved to Peru for language study.  I was surprised at how much I remembered from my high school days and also much I had forgotten.  Now it's 2017 and I've been in Peru for 12 out of the last 19 months.  On various occasions I've had native speakers tell me they were surprised that I was from the US because I didn't talk like a "gringo" or a "norteamericano."  All this is to say, I don't speak like a native, but my pronunciation and grammar is good enough that it's difficult for them to know where I come from.  So, age is no excuse.  You can learn and you can learn it well...Read More

Many years ago I had Spanish in High School and really enjoyed it.  I wish I had kept up with it, but instead I let it go.  In 2015 I really dug into the Rocket Spanish level 1 and later moved to Peru for language study.  I was surprised at how much I remembered from my high school days and also much I had forgotten.  Now it's 2017 and I've been in Peru for 12 out of the last 19 months.  On various occasions I've had native speakers tell me they were surprised that I was from the US because I didn't talk like a "gringo" or a "norteamericano."  All this is to say, I don't speak like a native, but my pronunciation and grammar is good enough that it's difficult for them to know where I come from.  So, age is no excuse.  You can learn and you can learn it well.  Stick with it.  Everyone has their own difficulties.  For some it'll be the grammar, others the vocab, and others the pronunciation.  But with time and effort you can work through all of this.  Just stick with it.
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning
loudoniii February 17, 2017, 5:43 pm
Excellent article, Jason - thank you!

I am trying to learn Spanish and Russian on Rocket Languages, at the same time ...  it is quite hard work, but a lot of fun.

The Cyrillic script of Russian was a barrier to me at first, but I find I can read it reasonably easily now, and Russian being a phonetic language makes it easier to work out the pronunciation of words than in English, say.

I am in my latter 60's and already know some Arabic, French and Swedish as well as my native English.  My French knowledge makes Spanish a thousand times easier to learn, but Russian is my 1st Eastern European language, so that is a steep learning curve.

The Rocket Languages voice recognition I find essential to my feeling I am making progress with my learning, as I get instant feedback on my pronunciation and an opportunity to practice over and over again until I can get it right...Read More
Excellent article, Jason - thank you!

I am trying to learn Spanish and Russian on Rocket Languages, at the same time ...  it is quite hard work, but a lot of fun.

The Cyrillic script of Russian was a barrier to me at first, but I find I can read it reasonably easily now, and Russian being a phonetic language makes it easier to work out the pronunciation of words than in English, say.

I am in my latter 60's and already know some Arabic, French and Swedish as well as my native English.  My French knowledge makes Spanish a thousand times easier to learn, but Russian is my 1st Eastern European language, so that is a steep learning curve.

The Rocket Languages voice recognition I find essential to my feeling I am making progress with my learning, as I get instant feedback on my pronunciation and an opportunity to practice over and over again until I can get it right.  When you are learning in a darkened room, hunched over a computer screen, this is a great motivator.

Learning Russian vocabulary is a bit of a slog, but I am making progress on that.  The interactive conversation practice is extremely helpful in cementing in the new skills.

Back to work now ...
 
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning
KelllaurBailar February 17, 2017, 5:54 pm
@loudoniii, same here! I can definitely relate to the Russian "vocabulary slog." And glad to hear there is one more Spanish learner out there. Buena suerte!
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning
Dan-H24 February 18, 2017, 11:26 am
Jason: I really enjoy these blogs by Andrea. As pointed out in #2, I am a very self-motivated adult learner, so I don't really need external motivation, but Andrea's articles inspire me to keep working hard at my goal. 

Hefay: I have often read your comments about the time you have spent in Peru with a good deal of envy. I was able to "retire" (I hate that word, it so does not apply to my life) from my first career relatively young and healthy (I am 63 now), so I have the time, sufficient resources, and the freedom to spend time in other countries. I would love to hear more of your experiences in Peru. Do you stay there only to study and practice Spanish, or do you do mission work or some other activity there? If so, what organization do you work with? Do you stay with families or in some other sort of accomodation? In a highland village? 

Sorry for all the questions, but I have this hazy plan...Read More
Jason: I really enjoy these blogs by Andrea. As pointed out in #2, I am a very self-motivated adult learner, so I don't really need external motivation, but Andrea's articles inspire me to keep working hard at my goal. 

Hefay: I have often read your comments about the time you have spent in Peru with a good deal of envy. I was able to "retire" (I hate that word, it so does not apply to my life) from my first career relatively young and healthy (I am 63 now), so I have the time, sufficient resources, and the freedom to spend time in other countries. I would love to hear more of your experiences in Peru. Do you stay there only to study and practice Spanish, or do you do mission work or some other activity there? If so, what organization do you work with? Do you stay with families or in some other sort of accomodation? In a highland village? 

Sorry for all the questions, but I have this hazy plan...well, not a plan yet, but an idea anyway, of spending an extended period of time in South America and your experiences might help me.

Thanks in advance,
Dan
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning
Malgosia February 18, 2017, 4:47 pm
I'm Polish and used to work some time ago as an English teacher with both young and adult learners. Working with adults was in many ways more satisfactory - they were the really motivated ones and some would go foreward like rockets !

Now, at the age of 50+, I'm trying the same thing - learning a new language as a fully grown up adult. In fact two languages: Spanish and French at the same time. Makes me a bit dizzy because they are really similar. Any advice on how best to proceed with that?
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning
Steven-W15 February 19, 2017, 5:57 am
Don't. I am a native American speaker, speak French and am learning Spanish. I have days where I have trouble keeping them straight. I would encourage you to get comfortably fluent in one before moving on to the other; otherwise you run the risk of not being able to speak either correctly.
 
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning
jason-oxenham-ceo February 19, 2017, 6:43 pm
Hi Malgosia - If you do decide to learn more than one language at a time then this article has a few pointers! https://www.rocketlanguages.com/blog/is-it-possible-to-learn-two-languages-at-the-same-time/
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning
gregbutler003 February 21, 2017, 8:27 pm
I am 51 and always wanted to learn how to speak Italian...I started Rocket Italian 10 days... I am absolutely LOVING IT!!! Grazie jason for this opportunity...
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning
Brittany--107 February 25, 2017, 12:56 am
Malgosia- It's better to either learn French or Spanish first, and then learning the other. If you want to learn two languages at once, I would advise choosing one of those you are learning and one that is harder in difficulty so that they aren't so easily mixed up with each other.
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning
drewster February 26, 2017, 11:15 am
Point #5: I've been going for a year on Italian and for the first while I believed that the more I knew the easier it would get. I don't think that is necessarily the case but I think your capacity to learn becomes greater. Of course the stuff I used to find really hard when I started is now much easier, but there is just so much more and more to learn. 

Malgiosa, I don't know how you do it! I find one hard enough. Maybe one day.
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning
Moughite March 1, 2017, 4:08 pm
Very useful facts! I think motivation and discipline are the keys for learning, they can help us to overcome any excuses like lack of time, long working days and so on. I decided to learn Japanese a long time ago, but I didn't started to make a steady progress until I started to commute and decided to make the one hour daily train travel time from home useful, all I have after learing to a lesson (twice a day!) is to dedicate 10 to 15 minutes for tests and the job is done! 
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning
drewster March 1, 2017, 7:49 pm
Moughite, I do exactly the same thing as you. I have an hour in the train and I use it on my Italian. It's very effective and it's such a good way to make use of the commuting time. I see people playing Candy Crush on the train and it seems like such a waste!

I do some at home each night too, mostly to do the speaking parts and also to speak to online tutors.
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning
jolietil March 11, 2017, 12:11 am
great!

                                       -joilet
5 Things You Need to Know About Adults and Language Learning

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