Learning a New Language
The global language learning industry is worth an astounding $82.6 billion — meaning a lot of people are investing a lot of money to attain the skill of speaking another language.
The task can feel exceptionally difficult — I myself have spent the last three years desperately trying to “get good” at Spanish, and to say I'm fluent would still be una mentira (a lie) — and many just give up altogether.
But while it's true that adult brains aren't particularly well-suited to picking up new languages, this hardly means trying is futile. According to language experts, mastering a second (or even third or fourth!) language is completely possible.
You just have to know some simple tricks.
Let's start with some good news. Human beings, unless they have cognitive deficits, “are born innately with the ability to acquire the language or languages that they are exposed to," says speech pathologist Michelle Grosberg Smith, M.S. CCC-SLP.
From day 1, babies have the extraordinary ability to make and hear all the sounds in all the languages in the world (some 150 sounds in about 6,500 languages!). By six months, most can recognize the basic sounds of their native language. Sometime between 18 months and two years, they're off and running, constructing complete sentences.
This acquisition happens not with the help of intensive apps or programs, but through simple listening. Once they're in the world, "babies are going to learn the language or languages that are in their environment through observation and imitation," says Grosberg Smith. This process is helped along by superior brain plasticity — the brain’s ability to change throughout life. Put another way, a baby's brain is like a sponge, soaking up the information needed to acquire language.
Children are even capable of easily acquiring a couple different languages concurrently through interaction with people speaking them. Impressive!
The bad news? As we age into our twenties, we lose some of the brain plasticity that makes early language acquisition so easy.
According to studies, the optimal time for people to learn new languages is before the age of 18. And if you want to become fully fluent, it's best to start before age 10 (because languages take several years of practice to fully master).
"Our brains don't have that same plasticity as we get older," explains Grosberg Smith.
Yes, it becomes more of a challenge to learn a new language after the age of 18, but this doesn't mean it's outright impossible.
“We don’t lose the ability to learn language over time,” says Grosberg Smith. “It’s more that we already have a primary language that we use daily and get by with.”
But if you are willing to train your brain and practice, learning a new language as an adult is an entirely attainable goal.
The most important step to take? Get yourself in front of people who fluently speak the language you want to master.
When we are children, we are completely immersed in a new language, so we have no choice but to absorb, mimic and emulate in order to communicate our needs. The same is true as we get older. We are simply less accustomed to doing so.
This is why experts emphasize how important it is to completely immerse yourself with native speakers. “You will have a better handle on the language because you are surrounded by it," says Grosberg Smith. "It is similar to the way we initially learn our primary language. People observe and imitate. It's just harder as an adult."
That said, we don’t all have the luxury of picking up and moving to Rome or Buenos Aires for months at a time to immerse ourselves in a new language. Happily, there are plenty of ways to do so on our home turfs.
Alberto Zambenedetti, assistant professor in the Department of Italian Studies at the University of Toronto, suggests watching shows and films in your mother tongue, but with subtitles in the foreign language you're hoping to learn. Another tip: "Listen to music in the target language and try to transcribe the words, dictionary at hand."
He also recommends using language-learning apps like Duolingo during your daily commute. Or join a language Meet Up and pay attention to speakers' gestures and facial expressions.
If you have the time to join a structured program, that is, of course, a wonderful way to lock in the mechanics of language, and to practice with a teacher who can help correct you. Programs like Rosetta Stone, for example, are incredibly effective in helping with language absorption.
“I think that a program’s effectiveness depends on individual learning style. There’s no one magic program,” says Grosberg Smith. “I’ve heard great things about Duolingo and Rosetta Stone, but it’s not the program that matters. It’s the motivation and seriousness for mastering.”
Keep in mind, there are a few languages that native English speakers may be able to pick up faster than others. Ones where you are required to learn an entirely new alphabet — for example, Arabic or Greek — might not be as easy. Similarly, languages that are tonal (when tone and pitch change the meaning of grammar or sentence structure), like Mandarin, Vietnamese, Thai or many other Asian languages, are quite difficult for English speakers.
If you're learning a new language for the first time, there are several ones that you can pick that might come more naturally.
Spanish, for example, is considered a relatively easy language to learn for English speakers. According to Medical Daily, this is because it has 24 easily pronounced phonemes, subject-object-verb grammar structures, and only one additional letter, ñ, which is not difficult for English speakers to grasp.
Other languages that are a bit easier are the rest of the Romance languages, like French, Italian and Portuguese, followed by Dutch, Swedish and Norwegian.
Believe it or not, the more practice you have with learning a language the easier it gets over time. Learning one new language makes it much easier for you to learn more.
You’ve already mastered the skills of repetition, practice and retention, so why not put those skills to use and master the globe?
“The deep structures are shared by many languages, so a second language is your friend when you are trying to learn a third,” says Zambenedetti.
To those adults who say they are “bad” with languages, that simply is not true. It just means you need to practice a little bit more.
"The biggest mistake is throwing in the towel too soon. As long as you don't have a cognitive deficit that blocks you intellectually, you have the ability to learn a new language," says Grosberg Smith. "If you aren't able to do so, it's because you've given up."
Remember, no one ever really “masters” a language. Even as adults with our primary languages, we are constantly learning new words, and unless you practice them daily they don't necessarily become part of your daily speech patterns.
Grosberg Smith adds, "Language is always a journey. If you keep at it and are motivated, practice it and expose yourself to it, you're going to be able to do it."
Remember: learning another language is incredibly valuable.
If you still feel like giving up, remember why acquiring a new language has so much power.
All the experts agree: the skill unlocks new experiences that would not be available to you if you couldn’t communicate in the local vernacular.
“Learning the local language before a trip is the best way to get to know the destination and experience it in a way that you would never be able to if you didn’t know the language,” says Lisa Frumkes, senior director of content development at Rosetta Stone. “You can order off the menu and know what you’re ordering. You can communicate on the most basic level with the locals, who appreciate the fact that you’re trying to connect with them.”
If you're not confident in your skills, even showing an attempt to speak in the local language can be beneficial. “It opens so many doors just to even try,” says Frumkes.
Moreover, it helps you understand and accept other cultures.
“Languages are portals onto other cultures, other worlds, other customs," says Zambenedetti. "They make us more accepting and open to new experiences and relationships. They invite us to learn more. Thinking that we don’t need to learn a foreign language just because we can get around anyways limits one’s exposure to the world more than one thinks.”
So if you're struggling with that second language, buck up and keep at it. You'll be all the richer for it.