Isn’t it difficult to learn a language later in life?
Tuesday, 10th July 2007
Simon Ager, language enthusiast, speaks as living proof that learning a language as an adult is possible
There is a widespread belief that children are best at learning languages and that it’s much more difficult for adults to do so. Is this really the case?
While it is true that young children are able to acquire several languages with relative ease, they do have a number of advantages over adults. Children spend the first few years of their lives immersed in their mother tongue(s) before they utter their first words and, by the age of five or so, they speak fluently, however it takes them many more years to acquire the more sophisticated language expected of adults. When they go to school, children who speak a different dialect or language to the other children will soon acquire the dominant dialect or language in order not to stick out – peer pressure is a powerful thing.
As we get older, it becomes more difficult to pick up languages as children do. This is partly because our native languages are firmly embedded in our brains, which can make it difficult to get used to different sounds, word order and grammar. We also have less time than children to devote to language what with jobs, families, other responsibilities and hobbies, and we tend to expect quicker and better results from our studies in a shorter time. Many adults learning languages get discouraged if they haven’t become fluent after six months or a year.
Fortunately it is possible to learn a language as an adult, even if you struggled with languages at school. First you need to find a language that really appeals to you – to fall in love with it in fact. This will help to motivate you and encourage you to spend as much time as possible with the language. If you choose a language that might be useful to you, or useful in general, but which doesn’t really appeal to you, you might find it more difficult to maintain your motivation and enthusiasm for it.
Next you need to find suitable materials and resources to learn the language. This could be any combination of text books, CDs, DVDs, online lessons, classes or language exchange. If you then study as often as possible – ideally every day – and use every opportunity to listen to, speak, read and write the language, you will eventually acquire a good knowledge of the language.
If possible it helps enormously if you can spend some time in a country or region where you chosen language is spoken. You could take language classes there, study something else through the medium of the language, travel or work. Being immersed in the language and having to use it every day is a great way to improve your fluency and confidence, and to pick up vocabulary.