Do you remember? As a child, you absorbed a new language like a sponge, effortlessly! Now, as an adult, you feel like navigating the linguistic labyrinth – it’s a real challenge… We won’t sugarcoat it – it became a matter of perseverance and determination. Can we offer some guidance to help light the way?
That’s good you accept our invitation: In this article, we’ll explore the multifaceted challenges faced by adult language learners, shedding light on the complexities that arise as they strive to master a foreign tongue.
It’s an optimistic article: most of your learning issues as an adult can be solved. You can speak new languages if you follow our tips.
Why does it have to be so complicated for adults?!
Talking about the process of the brain, adults just can’t learn languages as kids up to 4 years old do – accept it.
These are the differences between adults and kids when learning a new language.
- Each new language an adult masters sets up camp in a different part of their noggin, way far from the native language brain area (don’t ask us why); small kids have what seems to be a “language area” to gather all them.
- Very small kids learn languages in a kind of “organic” way, they don’t question or reflect on what they learn. By the way, they don’t realize they are learning a language! On the other side, adults reflect, question, try to find formulas and compare with their native languages. Adults demand more explanations on grammar, while kids just accept them.
So, when an adult learns a new language, he uses the mother tongue to build the second language system. That messes with the brain, as you can imagine… Translating back and forth makes things pretty time-consuming.
They’re just different ways to acquire a language, do you see? But both ways are successful.
And compared to teenagers, adults have life responsibilities that make their brains busier, with less “space” and less attention span to learn.
Anyway, adult learners have some perks (yesssss):
- They usually have a goal in mind, like living abroad, or being skillful for a job opportunity; having a goal is much better than having none.
- They develop much faster from basic to advanced levels, since they have literacy skills that small kids don’t.
- They achieve proficiency faster because they have a broader knowledge of many subjects than kids do; that means more opportunities to acquire vocabulary and talk to natives.
Next up, find out the hurdles adults tackle in learning a new language and some under-the-radar solutions!
Cognitive barriers and the language learning plateau
One of the primary challenges adult language learners encounter is the cognitive barrier. Neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to adapt and change) tends to decline with age, making it more difficult for adults to grasp new grammatical structures and vocabulary.
Additionally, adults have already established strong neural connections for their native language, making it challenging to break away from those patterns.
In such a context, learning a new language requires the brain to rewire itself, creating new neural pathways. This process can be frustrating for adults, as they often hit a plateau where progress seems to stall.
Let’s introduce Daisy, a Scottish gal, trying to pick up Spanish for her business. She got a bit annoyed when her progress hit a wall, but she was determined to learn it, so, even when she felt like she was stuck in a Spanish-learning rut, she showed real patience.
There were days when the verbs just wouldn’t stick, and she felt like throwing in the towel. But instead, she took a deep breath, gave herself a break, and came back to it the next day. She decided not to be too demanding on herself, and that patience paid off: Daisy is an advanced student today, just 2 years after starting her practice!
Overcoming this hurdle involves patience, consistent practice, and a willingness to embrace a different way of thinking.
Fear of making mistakes (are you a perfectionist?)
Jamila told us her case recently: she is a Moroccan woman on a mission to conquer the Japanese. Jamile has dived into Japanese culture for the last 5 years.
At first, she was a bit hesitant, unsure about diving into the trial-and-error process that comes with learning a new language.
“What would my partner think if I make too many mistakes?!”
But Jamila threw caution to the wind, embraced her mistakes, and jumped headfirst into the challenge. Whether it was fumbling over new characters or stumbling through conversations, she tackled each obstacle with determination.
In the end, Jamila not only learned Japanese enough to spend a month in Japan, but also proved to herself that overcoming inhibitions is critical to mastering a new language.
Adults, especially those in professional settings, may grapple with a fear of making mistakes.
Have you noticed how children seem immune to it?!
The desire to communicate flawlessly can hinder language learning, as adults may avoid speaking to sidestep potential errors. Language learners need to recognize that errors are an integral part of the learning process. In fact, each mistake is a stepping stone towards improvement.
Embracing imperfection allows adults to shed their inhibitions and engage in the trial-and-error process necessary for language acquisition.
Short on time: language learning X life responsibilities
Unlike children, who often have the luxury of dedicating large chunks of time to language learning, adults face the challenge of balancing this pursuit with their myriad responsibilities.
(You’re happy and didn’t realize!)
Work, family, and social commitments can leave little time for dedicated language study.
Finding creative ways to integrate language learning into daily life is essential for adult learners. Whether it’s listening to podcasts during a commute, practicing vocabulary during breaks, or setting aside specific study times, integrating language learning into existing routines can help overcome the time constraint challenge.
Lorenzo, a middle-aged Argentinian, needed to learn English for his job. How could he achieve fluency in it, while having small children and a daily work schedule?!
However he took on the challenge of language learning while juggling the responsibilities of daily life! He found creative ways to integrate language practice into his routine and revealed them to us:
- listening to podcasts during his commute
- practicing vocabulary during lunch breaks
- engaging in language exchanges online after putting the kids to bed (time zones are so diverse – that’s great!)
Lorenzo made language learning a seamless part of his busy life. Through this combination of dedication and integration, he not only expanded his linguistic skills but also showed that weaving language learning into the fabric of everyday responsibilities is indeed possible.
Your accent freakout
Gaya, lives in Iceland, and her main issue when learning a new language was – guess! – accent reduction!. She decided to be fluent in Portuguese as her family had moved to Portugal recently.
Initially, her pronunciation presented hurdles, making communication a bit tricky – Icelandic had nothing to do with Portuguese!
Undeterred, Gaya took matters into her own hands. She spent hours listening to native speakers, practiced with the Speaky language app, where she found several partners!
With time, Gaya not only overcame her accent challenges but emerged as a Portuguese speaker with impressive fluency. By the way, she is as fluent as her kids today!
Adult language learners may struggle with acquiring a native-like accent, a challenge muchless prevalent among children. The fear of sounding foreign or being misunderstood can lead to accent anxiety, hindering effective communication.
To address this challenge, we suggest adults to
- focus on phonetic exercises
- mimic native speakers
- engage in immersive experiences such as watching movies
- listening to music in the target language
Also regular practice with a language partner or a tutor who provides constructive feedback is invaluable in honing pronunciation skills.
Is vocabulary overloading you?!
Learning a new language involves memorizing a vast amount of vocabulary. Adult learners often find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of words to absorb. Striking a balance between quantity and quality is crucial to avoid becoming bogged down in a linguistic quagmire.
Meet Charles, hailing from France: he set out on a journey to achieve fluency in Polish. As he delved into the language, he encountered the challenge of memorizing a plethora of vocabulary. Being a senior, it was an expected issue in learning a new language.
But Charles adopted creative techniques, turning vocabulary into catchy tunes or creating visual associations. Through dedication (and a bit of French charm), Charles not only conquered the vocabulary hurdle but also emerged as a fluent speaker of Polish!
Effective language learning involves strategic vocabulary selection based on frequency of use and relevance to personal interests.
Our tips to enhance retention and prevent the feeling of drowning in an ocean of unfamiliar terms:
- employ mnemonic devices
- use flashcards
- incorporate new words into daily conversations
There is something else beyond words…
Ramses, told us how he became fluent in Dutch, and was able to come from Egypt to Netherlands for a congress about Medicine. No expensive courses, no boring grammar exercises…
He dove headfirst into Dutch films, music, festivities and literature. Ramses watched many videos on Youtube about local history, engaged in conversations with native speakers on the Speaky app, and even risked some recipes from Dutch cuisine!
By absorbing the language through cultural experiences, Ramses not only accelerated his language learning but also developed a deep understanding and appreciation for the Dutch way of life. While in the Netherlands, he enjoyed the trip much more than any other participant of the event.
His commitment to cultural immersion became the key to unlocking his fast-track fluency in Dutch.
Language is not just a collection of words: it is deeply intertwined with culture. Adult language learners may face the challenge of understanding and navigating the cultural context embedded in the language they are studying. Idiomatic expressions, cultural nuances, and non-verbal communication can be perplexing for those unfamiliar with the cultural backdrop.
Immersing oneself in the culture through literature, movies, and interactions with native speakers is essential for grasping these subtleties. Language learners need to go beyond textbooks and explore the rich tapestry of culture that shapes the language they are striving to master.
Limited exposure: that’s the bubble effect
Adult language learners in a foreign country may find themselves stuck in a language-learning bubble, where exposure to the target language is limited to specific study materials. Unlike children who are constantly surrounded by native speakers in foreign countries, adults may struggle to find opportunities for authentic language immersion – they are usually stuck just with country fellows.
It happened with the Canadian Alexander, in his 40’s, now living in Italy for work. Days after his arrival, he could only say “grazie” and “prego” – that was not enough for job meetings!
Everything changed when he cracked the code to fluency in Italian by immersing himself in the local culture. Instead of sticking to expat circles, he made a conscious effort to surround himself with Italian people at every turn—be it local events, cafes, or social gatherings.
Through these interactions, Alexander not only learned the language in real life but also discovered the nuances of Italian culture. His commitment to integrating into the community became the secret sauce to his swift journey to fluency in Italian.
Now he considers himself half Italian!
Engaging in real-life conversations is our tip to overcome the bubble effect! It’s invaluable for honing conversational skills and gaining a deeper understanding of the language.
The journey of adult language learning is undeniably challenging.
Many adults end up thinking they’re just not cut out for languages. But, hold up – every adult can tackle a second language – we can prove it.
So, to all the adult language learners out there: your journey is not like a child’s but it is a testament to the power of human adaptability and the endless possibilities that come with embracing the unfamiliar.