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Language Learning Myths: Adults and Language Learning

jason-oxenham-ceo August 7, 2016, 8:09 pm
Learning a language is a fascinating, complex journey into a new culture and way of thinking. It forces us to challenge our minds, memories and mouths and to step out of our comfort zones. For many of us adults, this can sometimes be an uncomfortable experience. We're so accustomed to speaking our native language that the idea of communicating, taking risks and making mistakes in a new language is uncomfortable. This discomfort has also lead to the widespread myth that it's much easier for children to learn languages than for adults.

But is language learning really more difficult for adults? Are you too old to learn a language? And if adults can learn languages well, isn't it better to learn just like a child does?

This week, I'll take a look at three of the biggest myths surrounding adults and language learning to prove that language learning as possible at any age.

MYTH #1: Children are Better Language Learners than Adults

While there are many studies proving that children find learning a language easier than adults, the idea that children are better at learning languages than adults is a misconception. In reality, children aren't better at learning languages than adults, they just approach language learning differently.  

As several researchers have found, adults typically approach language learning with an adult problem-solving process, while children don't let rules and logic limit their learning. They simply absorb everything. Children also don't have the same inhibitions when it comes to practicing, and therefore aren't afraid of speaking and making mistakes, which is crucial for improving their skills. This is one of the reasons why language learning appears easier for children, but in reality adults progress through the early stages of language learning faster than children.

The structure of our brains also plays a role in language learning. Since our brains are hard-wired to learn our first language, children are able to reach a higher language proficiency  sooner than adults because their brains are more flexible to the new rules. Children's brains have a higher plasticity, meaning that they can better create new neurons and synapses, or connections between information. This means that it's typically easier for them to memorize and recall information.

Children are not better than adults at learning languages, they simply approach language learning differently and it feels easier to them.  

Don't let that idea hold you back, though. 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. If you become bilingual as an adult, research has shown that learners who are literate in both of their languages and who possess meta-linguistic knowledge (knowledge about language and how it works) even find learning a third language significantly easier.

MYTH #2: I'm Too Old to Learn a New Language

Let's face it: our bodies are different at age 85 than they are at age 18, and so are our brains.

In the past, scientists believed that our brain development as children more or less determined our brain structure for the rest of our lives. This meant that there was an ideal "window" for learning new things that closed when we were adults. New research, however, has shown that learning is far more complex than we once imagined, and it can occur at any age.

A 2000 neuroplasticity study examined the brains of taxi drivers and discovered that their brains actually changed and formed new neural connections with time (Macguire et al.). That's right: their adult brains actually grew with time. A 2010 study built on this by examining the differences in brain plasticity between younger (21-30) and older (65-80) learning adults. They found that there were "no significant age-related differences in plasticity of white-matter microstructure" between the two groups.

Translation:  Our brains grow at any age, so we can learn at any age. Learning a language when we're older is never impossible; it's just different.

Your approach to learning should reflect those differences and keep a few important tips in mind:
 
  1. Be patient. Learning a language as an adult is a slower process because we have more demands on our brains and bodies. Don't let this bother you, though. You can and will learn with time.
  2. Take it step-by-step. Build upon your knowledge gradually and work towards fluency step-by-step. Always go back and review topics that you're not comfortable with and don't be afraid to build in your own mini-steps along the way.
  3. Use what you know. One of the wonderful parts of learning a language as an adult is that you have years of experiences, knowledge and memories to support your language learning. You already speak at least one language, so use this and your knowledge of other topics to learn a new one. Most importantly, you've learned how to learn, so all you need to do is use this knowledge to study a new topic.
  4. Learn how you like to learn. You've learned many things throughout your life, and learning a new language is no different from learning another topic, whether it be math, filing taxes, riding a bicycle or playing an instrument. Think of language as just another thing to learn and use the strategies you've already developed to make learning easier.  

MYTH #3: Adults Must Learn Languages like Children

As an ESL teacher for adult business professionals, I can't tell you how many times I've seen this theory proven wrong.

This myth has been perpetuated by the assumptions that children are "better" at learning languages than adults, and therefore adults must mimic the way children learn to be successful.   Obviously, both of these assumptions are wrong.

First of all, learning a second language is not like learning a first language because it implies previous language learning knowledge and experience. The more we learn, the more our brains change and develop. The new structure of our brains makes learning a second (or third, or fourth) language fundamentally different from learning our first language.

That's why we should never learn our second language the same way that we learned our first language.

Children learn their first language through immersion and by being bombarded by the language for over ten hours per day. For children, learning a language becomes a natural part of their environment. Adults, on the other hand, aren't able to abandon all of their responsibilities and dedicate the same amount of time to language learning. And even if they do, this complete, child-like immersive learning is often frightening, overwhelming and unproductive for adults.

As adults, we prefer to approach language learning more logically. While immersion is still very useful, it is also important for us to learn structures, rules and patterns to help us actively acquire language skills.   

The bottom line is that if it works for a child, that doesn't mean that it will work for an adult. In fact, it probably won't. Take advantage of the fact that you have years of learning experience under your belt, and learn a language the smart way (hyperlink: https://www.rocketlanguages.com/blog/how-to-learn-a-language-15-language-learning-tips-and-tricks/).  

Age Is No Longer an Excuse

Most importantly, always remember that when it comes to language learning, age is just a number. It's definitely not an excuse. While children and adults do learn differently, adults can take advantage of this difference to help make their learning even easier.

Never let your age prevent you from learning a language. Embrace your experiences and previous knowledge and start learning a new language today!

And meanwhile, to all the language-learning adults out there, keep up the great work!

By Andrea Reisenauer, guest blogger. Andrea Reisenauer is a language lover, ESL teacher and Rocket Languages fan with a Master's degree in Translation. She speaks Spanish, Catalan, and Italian and is currently studying French.
Language Learning Myths: Adults and Language Learning
David K August 7, 2016, 8:59 pm
Thanks for this inspiring article Andrea.  I'm a 61 year old native English speaker who has been studying German for about 3 hours a day since last October after a 45 year lull after taking 3 years of High School German, Latin, and one year of Spanish. 

I purchased all three levels of the Rocket German a month ago and completed Level 1 last week. I've enjoyed it so much,  for the last month I've put in between 4 and 10 hours a day into studying.

My mind hasn't felt this sharp and focused in years.  I've also been listening to German radio. At first, I could barely make out any words but now after 8 months I can actually hear every word and make fairly good sense out of the story lines although I have much more work to do to become proficient...Read More
Thanks for this inspiring article Andrea.  I'm a 61 year old native English speaker who has been studying German for about 3 hours a day since last October after a 45 year lull after taking 3 years of High School German, Latin, and one year of Spanish. 

I purchased all three levels of the Rocket German a month ago and completed Level 1 last week. I've enjoyed it so much,  for the last month I've put in between 4 and 10 hours a day into studying.

My mind hasn't felt this sharp and focused in years.  I've also been listening to German radio. At first, I could barely make out any words but now after 8 months I can actually hear every word and make fairly good sense out of the story lines although I have much more work to do to become proficient. 

My girlfriend thinks I'm crazy because I'm likely to be dead before becoming fluent, but I find the real time benefit to my cognitive focus, mood, and energy to be so worthwhile, my motivation is not based on an end result. This seems to be one of those rare times where the expression "it's not the destination, it's the journey is actually true."

What an amazing feeling to hear or read German and actually understand the meaning.

I have found the Rocket German program to be the best of over a dozen I've worked with.

Yesterday I bought Rocket Chinese for my son and I for his birthday. He is CEO of a company that has a lot of suppliers in China so I thought he might be both fun and useful for both of us to learn together.

David
Language Learning Myths: Adults and Language Learning
the-hefay August 8, 2016, 3:09 pm
Great article.  Thanks for posting it.
Language Learning Myths: Adults and Language Learning
Diana-S1 August 8, 2016, 6:08 pm
Thank you for the informative article.
Language Learning Myths: Adults and Language Learning
Dan-H24 August 9, 2016, 11:14 am
These articles are very motivating and often give me strategies to consider using.

I laughed at David's girlfriend's comment. I have often said that I cannot die until I am able to speak Spanish fluently. At the rate I am going I will live to about 110.
Language Learning Myths: Adults and Language Learning
trutenor August 10, 2016, 7:47 pm
Great article.

I feel the same way about the "die before I get fluent", but in my case its Japanese.  I first started learning when I was 13, but it isn't until 2 decades later that I finally start to make some real progress.  Those tips definitely help as it keeps you from getting frusrated
Language Learning Myths: Adults and Language Learning
elijah August 12, 2016, 12:39 pm
This is all working so well for me that my father is considering getting spanish and learning that now at 60. 
Language Learning Myths: Adults and Language Learning
Dan-H24 August 12, 2016, 3:22 pm
Encourage him to do so. I am 63, have been learning Spanish for 3 years, and I believe it  is great exercise for my brain. It gives you an entirely new way to think. And it has greatly expanded my cultural horizons as well.
Language Learning Myths: Adults and Language Learning
trutenor August 12, 2016, 4:53 pm
The only limitation to learning is the limitation that you put on yourself.  Make the Rocket languages work for you.  If you have to study the same thing over and over for a month to get it, then by all means do so.  That's what I enjoy about Rocket.  The system lets you go at your own pace and develop your own learning style.  Tell him to get it.  And if he has any questions, he can come to the forums and we'll help him out!
Language Learning Myths: Adults and Language Learning
David K August 12, 2016, 9:37 pm
Hi Dan - H24,  I'm glad you got a few chuckles from my girlfriend's comment that I'm likely to be dead before becoming fluent in German, Chinese, or Spanish.  At the time I was less than slightly amused.

But, the good news is that her comment has me studying longer, faster, and with even greater fervor so I can prove her wrong.

Maybe we should have a game-contest?  Whoever dies with the greatest foreign language vocabulary wins!  lol :=0)
Language Learning Myths: Adults and Language Learning
Lynette-R1 August 15, 2016, 4:24 pm
Hi David. I like what you wrote. I too am a mature student to a foreign language.
i have chosen Arabic. Sorry I did this but circumstances prevailed and I had no choice. I am now teaching English to Arabic children and thankfully because of the rocket course I am able to interpret the words from Arabic to English. most of the time anyway.....  It's right,  one is never too old to learn   It just takes longer. As they say patiece is a virtue. And, if at first you don't succeed try try again.
Language Learning Myths: Adults and Language Learning
David K August 15, 2016, 9:17 pm
Hi Lynette.  Thanks for your encouraging note.  What a great thing you are doing for these Arabic children.

I would really like to learn Arabic.  I almost chose Arabic rather than Chinese as a second Rocket Language  to learn.  But since my son has so many suppliers in China I thought I would have a better chance of convincing him to make time for than I would with Arabic.  

There is much ancient literature and a rich tradition of Arabic poetry I would like to explore.  Also, one of my linguistic professors from long, long, ago, Calvert Watkins,  asserted that Arabic is related to the same broad "language family" as Proto-Indo-European a mother language of most European languages he spend a lot of time trying to reconstruct using transformation grammar and sound shifts as daughter languages evolved...Read More
Hi Lynette.  Thanks for your encouraging note.  What a great thing you are doing for these Arabic children.

I would really like to learn Arabic.  I almost chose Arabic rather than Chinese as a second Rocket Language  to learn.  But since my son has so many suppliers in China I thought I would have a better chance of convincing him to make time for than I would with Arabic.  

There is much ancient literature and a rich tradition of Arabic poetry I would like to explore.  Also, one of my linguistic professors from long, long, ago, Calvert Watkins,  asserted that Arabic is related to the same broad "language family" as Proto-Indo-European a mother language of most European languages he spend a lot of time trying to reconstruct using transformation grammar and sound shifts as daughter languages evolved. He could map the evolution of Bhater, Bater, Pater, Padre, Vater, Father, as this same words adapted itself in different daughter languages that he saw as direct descendants of PIE.   Whatever...  Sorry to go off on a tangent, but I find this sort of interesting and thought I might explore and try to extend his language matrix.

My plan now is to start either Arabic or Spanish after I finish the next German or Chinese course.

There is a Memory Master fellow who is learning eight languages at the same time, after he realized all the introductory language courses cover the same basic ground, Introductions, telling time, counting, ordering coffee, etc.  He uses images, story lines, and sound patterns promulgated by memory master to demonstrate how much more quickly folks can remember things if you buy their astonishing course that should cost thousands of dollar but if we act now we can get it for $189.  I'm a sucker for these kind of courses.
 
So after thinking about this I started  has a matrix with the couple hundred typical first words in separate rows down the first column and then eight languages in column. 

I have already had 3 + years of German, Latin, a year of Spanish, and the typical dozen phrases in several others.  So I figured Chinese, Arabic, Russian, and American sign language would be an interesting start - just to test the learning pneumonics, color, images, and other tricks. 

But Jason (CEO, at Rocket) remarked that he doesn't recommend trying to learn more than two for the risk of getting them confused. 

At first my interest was keeping my aging brain active and expanding, but now I really like the idea of being conversant in German and Chinese rather than just doing memory tricks.

I have a brief opportunity to spend as much time a day as I like so I've been putting in anywhere between 4 and 16 hours day over the last month to see if I could get a good start.  And recommend this kind of intensive approach for anyone who can afford the time. One really build quite a momentum. 

I started Chinese last week and divide my daily study time equally.  It's exciting and fun, however, I have noticed a slight "bog down" in my German and some word retrieval issues over the first days, however, I am falling into a smoother switching routine now.

After I finish one of these courses, I'm going to see if I can convince Jason to let me have a crack at Arabic and Spanish so I can fill out the first 500 rows of this matrix and see if it really works to try to learn a bunch at the same time. I'm already a Platinum Master and only 40,,000 away from Black Hero status, and  probably the best customer they have over the last few months, so I'm  going to see if I can work the "VIP" special member free bonus course for those that promise to help out withh plenty of suggestions for improvement.

I'll let you know how it goes.    

Thanks for teaching these children more language capabiity.  I wish we had more people like you.  

I'll be glad to converse with you in Arabic when I get there.  (As, long as I'm not dead yet.   )

David.

 
Language Learning Myths: Adults and Language Learning
Dan-H24 August 15, 2016, 9:42 pm
David: interesting comments you make.

But Jason (CEO, at Rocket) remarked that he doesn't recommend trying to learn more than two for the risk of getting them confused. At first my interest was keeping my aging brain active and expanding, ​

I admire people who are learning more than one language at a time. I find myself suitably challenged just learning one. Spanish seems sufficient to keep my aging brain active and expanding; I fear that another language would cause it to explode. 

but now I really like the idea of being conversant in German and Chinese rather than just doing memory tricks.

I agree with this wholeheartedly. My ultimate goal is to be able to talk comfortably with Spanish speakers...Read More
David: interesting comments you make.

But Jason (CEO, at Rocket) remarked that he doesn't recommend trying to learn more than two for the risk of getting them confused. At first my interest was keeping my aging brain active and expanding, ​

I admire people who are learning more than one language at a time. I find myself suitably challenged just learning one. Spanish seems sufficient to keep my aging brain active and expanding; I fear that another language would cause it to explode. 

but now I really like the idea of being conversant in German and Chinese rather than just doing memory tricks.

I agree with this wholeheartedly. My ultimate goal is to be able to talk comfortably with Spanish speakers. What is the point of a big your vocabulary if you aren't able to use it for anything?

I have a brief opportunity to spend as much time a day as I like so I've been putting in anywhere between 4 and 16 hours day over the last month to see if I could get a good start.  And recommend this kind of intensive approach for anyone who can afford the time. One really build quite a momentum. 

I agree with this also. For a long time I faithfully studied my RL lessons daily, adding vocabulary practice via Quizlet and now Anki, reading a bit, and talking with native speakers whenever possible. But the last few weeks or so I have been making a real effort to increase the amount of time I spend "learning" in other ways: listening to CNN en Español on my car radio, and describing to myself what I am doing, or need to do, in Spanish, trying to immerse myself to the degree possible. Often I stop what I am doing, go the computer, and check my descriptive sentences on Google Translate to make sure I am correct. And lately I have even woken up at night and thought in Spanish. I have yet to dream in Spanish, but perhaps that will come as well. This "passive" learning, keeping my brain in Spanish mode much more often and for much more time during the day, seems to be helping me.
Language Learning Myths: Adults and Language Learning
David K August 16, 2016, 1:54 am
Hola Dan ,

Gracias por su respuesta a mi comentario interesante ti. El español es un idioma maravilloso y muy útil para cualquier persona que viva en las Américas . Yo vivo en Florida, donde hay muchos opportunies de utilizar y aprender español . Me gustaría mucho tomar el curso de español Rocket . Ha sido 45 años desde mi última cursos escolares en español por lo que necesitan para llegar al siguiente nivel que tendrá mucha práctica .

Hace algunos años , empecé el curso de Esperanto en Duolingo . Dijeron que eran el 90 % terminó con un curso de Vulcan del programa de televisión Star Trek y películas . LOL
  Yo sería feliz de conversar con usted en cualquier momento , con un poco de ayuda de Google Translate...Read More
Hola Dan ,

Gracias por su respuesta a mi comentario interesante ti. El español es un idioma maravilloso y muy útil para cualquier persona que viva en las Américas . Yo vivo en Florida, donde hay muchos opportunies de utilizar y aprender español . Me gustaría mucho tomar el curso de español Rocket . Ha sido 45 años desde mi última cursos escolares en español por lo que necesitan para llegar al siguiente nivel que tendrá mucha práctica .

Hace algunos años , empecé el curso de Esperanto en Duolingo . Dijeron que eran el 90 % terminó con un curso de Vulcan del programa de televisión Star Trek y películas . LOL
 
Yo sería feliz de conversar con usted en cualquier momento , con un poco de ayuda de Google Translate.

Una vez más , gracias usted.

David

(Please correct any errors in my very rusty Spanish which I used Google Translate to help.  I see an error in "useful to anyone who lives in the America language" rather than "the Americas," however, I do not know how to correct it and have run out of time.)
Language Learning Myths: Adults and Language Learning
Rodney-J August 23, 2017, 3:24 am
thanks for this article and your input on learners.  I have in the past been over concerned about having a 'gringo" accent and now I am not worried about it at all.  I am 56 and have tried to rush through the modules as fast as I could thinking I was progressing fast.  This time I don't move on to the next lesson until I have 80-90% mastered.  I have been here three weeks to morrow and only have about 93% of module 1 done.  However I have learned a lot about the words and sentences.  A LOT more than before when i got discouraged and gave up.  I am glad you can teach an old dog new tricks. thanks rocket spanish
Language Learning Myths: Adults and Language Learning
Rodney-J August 23, 2017, 3:36 am
Linda I like your attitude of not giving up. You inspire be learning Arabic to talk English with the children.  I gave up five years a ago but have decided to take it slower and now I ask native speakers with my gringo accent and ask if it is okay to practice my espanol.  They are very kind in assisting me and correcting my poor grammar but they seen to enjoy the effort and has started building friendship instead of walls. I love many parts of the Latin culture and look forward to conversing more openly and friendly with them.
Language Learning Myths: Adults and Language Learning

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