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It's never too late to start learning a second language

Learning a second language as an adult is not as difficult as you may think

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It's never too late to start learning a second language

Your phone buzzes. “Hi! It’s Duo. These reminders don’t seem to be working. We’ll stop sending them for now.” Frustrated, you take comfort in the fact that it’s nearly impossible to learn a second language as an adult anyway, right? 

Well, no. 

In 2018, MIT researchers published a study on “the critical period for second language acquisition” that caused a bit of media hysteria. The linguistic “critical period” hypothesis posits a window in adolescence in which language acquisition must occur to reach native-like fluency, and after which language learning becomes extremely difficult. Despite being just one language acquisition theory of many, the study got a lot of attention, resulting in misleading headlines like “Becoming fluent in another language as an adult might be impossible” and “Scientists reveal cut-off age for learning a new language.” Thankfully, these are far from the truth.

The study shows that the top quarter of participants who began learning a language after the age of 20 performed nearly as well as those beginning at a younger age. It also shows that adults can learn fast. After only a year of study, the same top quarter were scoring 80-85% on the study’s test.

But is it really fair to focus on the top quarter of over-20 participants? The study points out that these individuals probably had more exposure to the language, making them more comparable to their adolescent counterparts than their fellow over-20s.

“It remains possible that the critical period is an epiphenomenon of culture: the age we identified (17-18 years old) coincides with a number of social changes, any of which could diminish one’s ability, opportunity, or willingness to learn a new language,” the authors write. So a lot of the difficulty adults face when learning a language isn’t necessarily due to loss of brain plasticity; it could be due to lack of motivation and time.

If only we had an abundance of free time, access to an internet full of resources, and motivation birthed out of extreme boredom ... you can see where this is going.

Here are some suggestions on how to effectively teach yourself a language at home.

Community

“Interacting with native speakers or other language learners in the foreign language is essential for learning,” associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese studies Ana Fernández Dobao said in an email.

To make sure you interact with others, find language learning communities online through Meetup, Reddit, or UW. Children learn languages through social interaction, and research suggests that adults really should as well.

If you don’t want to talk to other people, at least try talking to yourself. Children often verbalize their inner thoughts when learning a language, so try verbalizing your thoughts throughout the day.

Routine

Language-learning apps are not really effective, but they can help you create a routine. Keep the apps’ notifications on and do your daily practice, but don’t stop there.

These apps are also a good way to get in writing practice. Having the letters or characters of words as a mental referent can be helpful for second-language learners in counteracting entrenchment of their native language.

Content

Research suggests that learning about another topic in a foreign language might be more beneficial than traditional language study. Pick a topic you like and try to teach yourself relevant vocabulary and phrases. Then watch a documentary, write, or read about your topic in your target language. 

“At home one can easily play with vocabulary, attaching sticky notes to different objects and naming them in the target language while trying to make sense of the grammar,” Ilona Härmävaara, Finnish lecturer in the department of Scandanavian studies, said in an email. “It is always good to process [language] by making a visualization that makes sense for you.” 

Professor Fernández Dobao suggests working on everyday tasks like filling out a form or giving directions. This gives context to isolated vocabulary and structures.

Media

Watching movies or listening to podcasts is essential to learning a second language. Simply hearing the language spoken, even if you don’t understand a lot, helps you subconsciously learn the accent, colloquial speech, and patterns.

The process of chunking — learning language in phrase chunks rather than individual words — is really important and occurs while you’re listening to the language spoken. By learning in chunks, the brain can process grammar on its own, leaving less work for you.

Whether you want to be able to converse with your grandparents in their native language or travel to a foreign country, your goals are achievable, and now you’ve got the time to pursue them. Härmävaara encourages celebrating every small achievement in your language journey.

"Don't give up, and enjoy the small advancements in your skills,” she said. “The fact that you understood a joke in a target language TV show or that you could read someone's Instagram post should be cherished.”

Reach Co-Copy Chief Sam Steele at science@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @samsteele246

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