Learning a New Language as an Adult

Hello! I’m Richard West, a new teacher at Sagalingua, and I’d like to talk about a widespread myth about learning languages.

“I’m too old to learn a new language”

You’ve probably heard this before. It’s a common misconception about language learning that is needs to be better understood.

Now, here’s what’s true about it. After around age 12, you stop learning language like a native speaker.  Children are extraordinarily good at learning their first languages. They’re so good that they can’t even explain what they know. I’m sure there are many aspects of your native language that you can’t explain other than saying “it just sounds right”!

After age 12, you start learning language like an adult. While this is not as efficient and effortless as it is for children, it is still possible for an adult to learn a new language to a native or near-native-like proficiency. Unlike children, adults need more focused effort, study, and instruction. There is one other aspect, however, of adult language learning that makes it harder for adults to succeed in learning a new language:

Learning a new language sometimes makes you feel really dumb.

As you learn a new language, you make a lot of simple mistakes. You struggle to explain basic ideas. You find yourself completely lost reading simple stories or listening to the news. An important part of being an adult is feeling confident in your understanding of the world, and learning a language throws that into turmoil. Your time in class, in lessons, or in study might be the time of your day when you feel most confused and helpless, and that experience can be discouraging.

As you work on your new language, remember that:

  • You can learn a new language very well,

but

  • You need to overcome some awkward moments to get there.

Here are some tips to put these ideas into practice:

  1. Get out of your comfort zone and embrace the unease you have as you run into challenges. Then, make a plan to understand them and avoid them in the future.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Most people are friendly and willing to help. If you have a teacher, ask them lots of questions.
  3. Keep track of your progress. If you’re feeling not so confident, look back at something you wrote or watched or read a few months ago. You’ll probably find that you feel much more capable today.
  4. Be more like a child. Children are too curious and excited about the world to worry about making mistakes or being embarrassed. Your language learning time is a safe time and place for you to learn and grow, so do it!

To this last point, something you may not have realized, is that children go through the same process. If you’ve ever spent time with a 2-year-old, you’ve seen them become frustrated when they’re not understood. You’ve heard them make grammar mistakes, which often come from overgeneralizing rules. For example, my little sister said “I amn’t” for years. If you can say “you aren’t” and “he isn’t” and “they aren’t,” why not “I amn’t”? Children make (and learn from) the same mistakes that adults make, but they forget them quickly.

As you continue on your language learning adventure, push through the discomfort knowing that, if you plan well and work hard, you can achieve all of your language goals.

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