If you’re struggling to learn a new language, breathe, you’re not alone. Adults famously find language learning more difficult than children, whose super-flexible brains actually grow the connections necessary to learn an additional language.
But, why is it so hard to learn a foreign language, anyway? Put simply, it’s hard because it challenges both your mind (your brain has to construct new cognitive frameworks) and time (it requires sustained, consistent practice). But there’s more to it than that.
In this article we’ll explore three major factors that make language learning difficult – and give you six tips to make it that much easier; to put a little spring in your language learning step!
Have you ever wondered why some people sail through Spanish and others can barely mutter “hola”? Well, there is research which suggests that our own brain’s unique wiring can pre-determine language success. In a study conducted at McGill University, participants’ brains were scanned before and after undergoing an intensive 12-week French course. Researchers found that stronger connections between brain centers involved in speaking and reading were seen in the better-performing participants. While this could mean that some people are simply cognitively better equipped for language learning, it doesn’t mean that everyone shouldn’t try (and yes, it really is that good for you)!
After-work classes, studying abroad, apps, talking with your foreign partner, working overseas, taking an intensive language course – there are so many ways to learn a language. However, it’s clear that because adults have to, you know, be adults, we simply can’t learn “implicitly” as young children do, by following around a nurturing native speaker all day. Unfortunately, our more sophisticated grown-up brains get in the way of learning.
As adults, we tend to learn by accumulating vocabulary, but often don’t know how each piece interacts to form grammatically correct language. Research from MIT even suggests that adults’ tendency to over-analyze hinders their ability to pick up a foreign language’s subtle nuances, and that straining harder and harder will not result in better outcomes.
Voxy’s Katie Nielson blames this on the idea of ‘language as object’. ”In history class, you start chronologically and you use dates in order of how things happened. That’s just not how language-learning works,” she says. “You can’t memorize a bunch of words and rules and expect to speak the language. Then what you have is knowledge of ‘language as object’. You can describe the language, but you can’t use it.”
It’s better, she says, to consider the process “skill learning” (something you do), rather than “object learning” (something you know). The remedy? Lose the perfection. Get messy in your learning – whether via app, class or travel – be happy to make mistakes and realise that you will feel silly at times.
Similarities Between Languages
We empathize! It’s not easy to learn a language vastly different than your own (think English speakers struggling with Korean, or a Thai native wrestling with Arabic). Interestingly, studies show that these difficulties are not due to personal aversions to challenge, but rather, to neurological preferences. Research at Donders Institute and Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics indicates that our brains are not indifferent to the similarities between languages, and will reuse our native tongue’s grammar and characteristics to make sense of a similarly-structured foreign language. Professor of psycholinguistics Nuria Sagarra agrees that learners of vastly differing languages have a greater challenge ahead: “If your native language is more similar to the foreign language (e.g. your native language has rich morphology and you are learning a different rich morphology, such as a Russian learning Spanish), things will be easier.”
Tips To Make Your Journey Easier
While learning a language will never be 100 percent easy – nothing truly worthwhile is – it can definitely be enjoyable and successful. So what can you do? Luckily, a lot!
Know Yourself and Your Goals
Why are you learning this language? For professional reasons? Pleasure? To communicate with family? With your goal in mind, actively search for opportunities to learn what you need and filter out what you don’t (for example, vocabulary for talking about your work is very different to that necessary to navigate North America on a road trip). Focusing on your overall learning goal will help you combat burnout when it comes.
While our brains are no longer as flexible as kids’ are, we can be as curious as them! Immersion and play are key, and for adults excellent approaches are taking a class in your language (French cooking in French or salsa in Spanish) or going on a study abroad program that combines language learning with travel and cultural immersion.
Already know one foreign language? Give yourself a head start by diving into a relatively (or very!) similar one (e.g., Portuguese/Spanish or Dutch/German or Norwegian/Swedish/Danish). Your previous learning experience will help you filter this new language more effectively.
“You need motivation to repeatedly seek out new language learning experiences, and motivation has been consistently tied to language learning success,” says Angela Grant, from Pennsylvania State University. Find yours by buying your plane tickets right away, having lovely notebook for class, exploring your city with a language exchange partner or making a ritual of doing your homework in a favorite coffee shop.
Come face to face with new input as much as possible! Change the language on your social media accounts, computer and phone. Download movies, listen to music and podcasts; read novels, non-fiction and magazines; watch documentaries and cook from foreign recipes.
Remember, you’re learning a skill, not an object. Relish the ridiculous moments, especially during the first months, and do not fear failure or embarrassment. Make peace with the fact that your accent isn’t perfect and you don’t understand everything. None of this matters in the long run. What matters is commitment!
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This article is published in collaboration with Education First.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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"I used to joke that I spoke French like a 3-year-old," says William Alexander, the writer. "Until I met a French 3-year-old and couldn't hold up my end of the conversation."
This, he goes on to say, came after a year of intense study, replete with Rosetta Stone and other language learning software.
The difficulty of learning a second language is as familiar as it perplexing — no wonder the global language learning industry is worth a whopping $82.6 billion.
But even with all that demand, the frameworks we have for adult language-learning are limiting.
Katie Nielson, chief education officer at language-learning app Voxy, told us why the usual approach to language-learning — for high schoolers, college kids, and adults — is less than magnifique.
Our main mistake: treating language like other scholastic subjects.
"In history class, you start chronologically and you use dates in order of how things happened," Nielson says. "That's just not how language-learning works. You can't memorize a bunch of words and rules and expect to speak the language, then what you have is knowledge of 'language as object.' You can describe the language, but you can't use it."
The problems with our received wisdom around learning languages go beyond that.
For one, lots of language courses purport to teach you to learn a language in the same way that kids do.
While this sounds intuitive, it's not very functional. Adult brains are less able to pull off "implicit" learning than kids, who are more sponge-like in their information acquisition. Also, kids have better conditions: Nielson notes that a child spends her first two years following around a person who explains everything to them all the time.
Grown-ups don't have that luxury.
What's worse, we do have a bias toward problem solving. We like to use logic to figure things out. That's why we "gravitate to things like verb conjugation," Nielson says, "since it's satisfying to figure out the patterns and complete the fill-in-the-blank exercises." These are forms of drilling — which cognitive science shows doesn't really spur learning— and they feel like learning, even though they aren't.
"If you go through and do a lot of verb conjugations and you're really good at putting verbs into the past perfect tense," Nielson says, "it doesn't mean if you want to have a conversation with someone, that you're going to use the past perfect tense appropriately."
The underlying problem, again, is treating language as an object, something you learn about, rather than as a skill, something you do.
It's akin to starting out in music, with all its experimental messiness. Just like learning the guitar, you can't give universals for what people need to do in order to learn.
"You need to make a lot of mistakes," Nielson says. "You need to be real bad at it, and then it ends up working better — but it's messier. And that's different from how you usually learn in a classroom."
What to do if you want to learn a language as a grown-up
Nielson gave us a few first steps:
1. Ask yourself why you want to learn the language. Language-learning has a seriously steep learning curve and lots of people burn out. Prevent that by seeing how the language will plug into your life, and then do what you can to make that integration happen.
2. Get your expectations sorted. When you're used to getting feedback in five minutes — that tweet was a failure if it earned no favorites by the time you get back from the bathroom — the grind of language-learning can be infuriatingly slow. Then there's the embarrassment thing: you're going to sound silly when you speak. It's OK.
3. Build a study plan around what you want to use the language to do. One-sized-fits-all programs end up helping nobody, Nielson says. Instead, figure out if you're learning French to find the perfect croissant, talk to people in bars, or get a better grasp of art history. Then structure your studies around that.
4. Enlist tech and culture to reinforce it. Set your GPS to French. Watch French movies with French subtitles. Listen to real people using it. Read real articles for native speakers.
The over-arching lesson: use language how real people use it.
"We use language as a tool for communication in real life," Nielson says. "That's also how we should use it in the classroom."