Can Adults Really Learn a Second Language?

Man sitting in a coffee shop on his laptop taking an online language training course

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“If I'm selling to you, I speak your language; if I'm buying dann mussen Sie Deutsch sprechen” 

–Willy Brandt 

If you speak the dominant language of your world, it’s always tempting to think you don’t need to speak anything else. It’s easy to believe you don’t have to because everyone around you speaks your language. And even if they don’t, you can always make the excuse that it’s already too late, that adults can’t learn a new language. I’ve met many ex-pats and world travelers who might have studied another language in high school or university but haven’t learned anything since. Others have remained monolingual. 

To everyone who hasn’t studied a language in their adult life, I want to say one thing: keep it up! While you’re limiting yourself to the same old circle of acquaintances, I’ll be out meeting people around the world. While you ask others if they can speak your language, I’ll try my best to speak theirs.  And while you remain in your comfort zone, I’ll be pushing myself out of mine, meeting new people, seeing new things, and exposing myself to new points of view the whole time.   

I agree with all your reasons for not learning a language. Language learning is complex! I still get more things wrong than in Hungarian’s eighteen cases. And it’s time-consuming! I’ve never worked so many hours a week as I did at my Hebrew immersion language school (who knew it was a six-day workweek!?). It’s impossible not to sound strange–my French accent gets laughs whenever I try to roll my r’s–and it’s easy to backslide–I only remember about 20% of the German vocabulary I once knew.   

But you know what? The month I spent in Israel learning Hebrew was one of the best months of my life. I got to know fellow students from Morocco, Iran, Belgium, and Ukraine. We ate together and shared our respective cultures. Studying Hungarian is opening my eyes to my family’s heritage–when I look at the old black and white pictures of them from the 1920s, I’m even more amazed to think they could use all eighteen cases correctly! My French only gets laughed at when I’m there ordering pastries at cafés in the villages I ride my bike through, and my German always comes back to me after a week of using it.   

I’m not fluent in any of my four languages, but I bond with more people because I’m trying to do something hard for me. People want to hang out and help. Sometimes we speak their English, but we wouldn’t become friends if I’d started with English. Even if I’m only a beginner, I’ve never met someone who isn’t happy to hear I’m studying their language.   

Ok, maybe I’m weird. Not everyone learns languages for fun, but it’s more than that. I’ve worked for multinational companies for twenty-five years and have seen the difference it makes to practice what you preach. Nothing is better than when you can greet your overseas employees in their language, support your customers from other countries in their language, and expand with confidence because you know the language of the new markets where you’re working.   

Willy Brandt’s famous quote nails something crucial. When you expect someone to speak your language, you’re asking them to do something for you; you’re in their debt. If you can meet someone in their language, it shows them respect and reveals something important about your character. In my years traveling the world, I can say that that never goes unnoticed or unappreciated. 

If you’re interested in starting your language journey, let’s chat. We’re experts in second language acquisition and have a worldwide teacher network that can equip you with the language tools you need to succeed.

This blog was written by Jack Marmorstein, Chief Learning Officer.

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