Another Language At Any Age

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Photo: Deposit Photos, Scanrail

By Roger Kreuz and Richard Roberts

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’d love to learn a foreign language, but it’s too late to start now?” If so, you’re not alone.

You’ve also probably read the advice of experts in the field of aging who stress the importance of staying socially connected and keeping mentally sharp by taking up a cognitively challenging activity like studying a foreign language. But both can’t be true. The mismatch between the experts’ advice and our expectations is due to a misconception about how adults should approach foreign language learning.

You’re Not a Kid Anymore But So What?

As most people assume, children possess some very specific abilities when it comes to learning a foreign language. However, their biggest advantage by far is a lack of anxiety about language learning itself. Unburdened by this constraint, children’s linguistic abilities are honed in an environment in which parents, older siblings, teachers, and others freely and openly correct, criticize, and cajole them toward fluency. No matter how many mistakes children make, and they make many, they are not deterred by them—until they get older.

The other strength of younger language learners is their ability to quickly and easily memorize by rote. Therefore, it is not surprising that teaching techniques well-suited for younger learners emphasize memorization drills. But such repetitive exercises may not be particularly helpful or motivating for the adult language learner.

However, neither of these two factors in any way negates the ability of adults to learn a foreign language. In fact, adult language learners have some specific strengths of their own that they can draw upon to master a foreign language. Chief among these is an adult’s ability to think about their thinking. Unlike children, adults are strategic learners who can leverage those unique intellectual skills that they have honed over a lifetime in the service of language learning.

To Become an Expert, You Need Confidence

Like Darwin’s finches, over time, we adapt in order to exploit more and more specific niches in our lives. A 25-year-old general practitioner is a specialist in sleep medicine by the time she’s 50. An amateur philatelist peeling stamps from postcards in junior high school becomes the world’s leading expert on the postmarks of the Weimar Republic as an adult. Furthermore, we take pride in this transition from generalist to specialist. To be an expert in a specific area—no matter how narrow—is to have confidence in one’s abilities.

Since adults rarely face tasks in their daily lives that they haven’t already mastered, starting—or restarting—foreign language study goes against the accustomed order of increasing specialization.

Don’t Fall Into the “I Knew I Was Too Old” Trap

Consequently, when an adult language learner feels that they aren’t picking up Spanish quickly enough, they may mistakenly believe that it is because of their age. But by measuring their progress in Spanish against the other areas in which they have already excelled, they are unwittingly falling victim to a hindsight bias. That is, they says to themselves, “I knew all along that I was too old to learn Spanish.” In order to avoid this kind of faulty attribution, it may be helpful to reframe what it means to learn a language.

A good way to do this is to approach foreign language learning like a business entrepreneur. To be an entrepreneur is to risk failure. This doesn’t mean entrepreneurs like risking failure—they don’t. And it doesn’t mean they seek out this risk. Quite the contrary, successful entrepreneurs do everything in their power to avoid failure by applying what they learned in previous ventures to the new one.

It’s the same for adult language learners. To learn a language as an adult is to risk failure. And they also try hard not to fail. But thinking like an entrepreneur allows adult language learners to take advantage of their expertise while at the same time not being overly concerned about the occasional setback.

A Lifetime of Experiences Helps You Learn New Languages

For example, psychologists know that people are more likely to remember information that relates directly to themselves. This means that adults with a lifetime of experiences have a wealth of information upon which they can draw to exploit this “self-reference effect.” By relating what they are trying to learn to specific episodes from their lives, they are able to create powerful retrieval cues that will help them master new information.

Choose Goals and Strategies for Learning

But confidence alone will only get you so far. It is also important to plan for language learning like an entrepreneur. When an entrepreneur considers undertaking a new venture, they may craft a business plan in which they lay out specific goals and the strategies for reaching them. They wouldn’t just think to themselves, “Someday I hope to control the biggest supermarket chain in town.”

Goal? A Vacation? To Read Literature?

The adult language learner needs to have a plan, as well. Telling themselves that someday they want to become fluent in French would not be particularly helpful. They need to ask themselves why they want to learn a particular language and for what purpose. Is the goal simple conversational fluency for an upcoming vacation? Or is it to delve into the language’s rich literary heritage? These goals need to be clear at the outset and if they are not, the result may be disappointment and frustration.

Plan Ahead: When, Where, and How

To avoid committing a planning fallacy, adult language learners need to focus on the steps they need to take to reach their desired level of fluency and not merely the end goal of what they will do once they have achieved fluency. In other words, they must plan exactly when, where, and how they will study the language as opposed to when, where, and how they will enjoy the upcoming vacation in which they use the language.

Don’t Learn Like a Child

In addition to adopting the right attitude toward language learning and having a realistic plan, it is helpful to avoid using techniques that are not well-suited to adult language learning. All too often, adult language learners try to mimic the language learning of children. But this is not a good strategy, because it ignores an adult’s lifetime of other learning experiences. Failing to appreciate how these experiences can be applied to language learning could make what entrepreneurs call a preventable failure seem like an inevitable failure.

You Already Know How to Talk … Just Apply It

For example, in comparison to children, adult language learners know a great deal about the social aspects of language use. They understand politeness routines and how to make small talk. Abilities like these don’t need to be relearned when acquiring a new language. And although some different cultural conventions may need to be acquired, the concept of being polite doesn’t need to be mastered all over again.

Adults already know what grammar is: how it works, how to deal with rules, as well as exceptions to those rules, even if the grammars themselves differ. And depending on the language, adults can capitalize on other similarities that exist between their native and target languages.

An adult can recognize that the German word Hund is similar to the English word “hound” and infer that it must mean “dog.” Such inferences aren’t always correct but depending on the language, this is just one example of how adults can rely on prior knowledge in ways that children cannot.

Don’t Give up Because You Are Embarrassed

Finally, to avoid frustration, adult language learners should reframe the inevitable setbacks, misunderstandings, corrections, and inability to remember previously learned material as opportunities for greater proficiency. Once in a while, a mistake will be so perfectly wrong that it gets a laugh and serves as the starting point for a conversation. Those kinds of mistakes are like linguistic stock options that will pay dividends far into the future. But only an experienced adult would recognize their intrinsic value.

Takes Time, Strategy, Dedication to Reap Rewards

Learning a foreign language will take time, it will take strategy, and it will take dedication. Most of all, it will take a willingness to feel foolish as one mistake follows another. But as Winston Churchill observed, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

Roger Kreuz is an associate dean and professor of psychology at the University of Memphis. Richard Roberts is a foreign service officer for the U.S. Department of State, currently studying Japanese at the Foreign Service Institute in Yokohama. They are the authors of Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language (MIT Press).

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