Learning a Language As an Adult - 5 Top Tips
Mar 14, 2010 English Language Learning (ELL) 2583 Views
It's a well-known fact that adult learners of languages have a much more difficult time of it than children do, for the simple reason that children's brains are far more malleable when it comes to language learning. In fact somewhere after the age of eleven, the native-language learning centre of the brain gets badly "fried" in the hormonal onslaught of puberty and an older teenager or adult can never recapture the ease with which children can learn a new language. Sad, but true.
A lot of foreign language teaching for adults centres round "conversation topics" or "learning verbs" but without context these techniques can be stultifying and it's so important that adults keep their motivation to learn.
For example, what better way to get de-motivated than by a "conversation topic"? This technique might introduce you to eight greetings, all in lesson one; you know the sort of thing: "Hi! Hello! How are you? Nice to meet you! G'day! Good morning! Good afternoon! Good evening!" You hear and see these phrases repeatedly and then you practise them in role-play and (hopefully) remember them.
Or another great de-motivator, "learning verbs" might introduce you to, say, French irregular verbs by teaching the present indicative of aller - to go, all in one lesson; for example: "je vais - I go, tu vas - you (informal) go, il/elle va - he/she/it goes, nous allons - we go, vous allez - you (plural or formal) go, ils vont - they go." Then you practise, or chant, the verbs by rote and (hopefully) remember them.
The trouble with both of these approaches is that this is not how language works or what it's for. Language is a tool for communication. As a social tool, it strengthens relationships. As a practical tool, language gets you what you need and allows you to influence others. And it's a tool which you learned as a small child as a complete package, exactly in the context in which you needed to use it.
So, recognising this difficulty for adults, here are my five top tips for learning a new language when you're over the age of eleven.
1. Learn in a naturalistic context
Context is everything. Stories told in the new language are an ideal way to learn because they allow you to talk about realistic situations which develop in an natural way.
2. Learn a little bit at a time
Get a course which is structured to introduce you to the new language in a gradual and logical way. Overload is demoralising and de-motivating.
3. Give yourself plenty of mental "hooks" to hang the new vocabulary onto
Try to combine the sound and written shape of a new piece of vocabulary with a visual clue, such as a picture or actual object. This is rather like how you learned to speak in the first place and is one of the few childish things that survives into adult language learning.
4. Practise regularly
Little and often habituates the brain to the new language.
5. Practise in a structured way
If you're trying to learn, say, a new part of the French verb: aller - to go, try to find a course which lets you practise using it in context until it feels natural and you produce it automatically, without having to think.
These five tips will help you learn a new language - and, crucially, internalise it. In fact, they're some of the key principles on which Alcuin Languages courses are based.