I’m an adult. Can I really learn another language?
As an adult language learner, you might think: “It’s too late for me to learn English!”
Does that sound familiar? Most people assume only kids are capable of learning another language. Well, guess what? That’s a myth we are going to bust today.
It’s true that kids have greater neuroplasticity (the ability to form neural connections) than adults. This is why we often call kids “sponges” — they seem to soak up every bit of knowledge around them. But what people don’t realize is that adults have plenty of powerful advantages in the learning process.
Here’s why you can still learn a second language, even as an adult:
You speak an L1…
You already have one language system under your belt. Don’t underestimate the power of knowing your first language (L1). You are familiar with forms, structures, and word order. You use diverse phrases and rich vocabulary. As you begin to learn a new language (your L2), your brain identifies connections and patterns with your L1 that accelerate your learning process. Your L1 can help you decode meaning in your L2. For instance, a French speaker would immediately understand asansör, the Turkish word for “elevator” because it’s the same in French (ascenseur). If you came across the Spanish word civilización, you’d probably think of civilization. Correct! When you encounter an unfamiliar word or phrase, you are able to use context to guess the meaning without panicking or getting stuck as a child often does.
You want to learn…
Kids are often forced to learn another language, which greatly impedes the learning process. By contrast, you have chosen to learn another language for your own reasons. You wouldn’t be reading this newsletter if you didn’t think it was important! You know that strengthening your language capabilities will create more opportunities for you. This knowledge is a powerful motivator. It keeps you going when the going gets tough. Your positive attitude makes it easier for you to absorb target language input and engage in your studies. It also makes you more likely to apply your new language skills outside the classroom, which is a crucial step for knowledge retention. Couple the desire to learn with a growth mindset and you will be unstoppable. Watch out, younger language learning self!
You know how you learn…
You spent the first 20+ years of your life learning. At this point, you know what types of teaching work for you and which don’t. This allows you to be strategic about your instruction. If you learn by reading, you can spend more time on written materials. Maybe you learn better by doing, so you should seek out more opportunities to speak with others in your L2. If you learn by listening, you can learn a song in your L2 or listen to a podcast in the target language. Or if you learn through error correction, encourage native speakers to point out your mistakes! You may have less free time, but now you know how to use that precious time more efficiently! Kids are still learning how to learn and their cognitive mechanisms are still forming but adults are finely-tuned learning machines.
You are disciplined…
Whereas children are drawn toward instant gratification, as a high-achieving adult, you know the value of hard work. You prioritize tasks that are aligned with your long-term objectives, even if that means missing out on short-term pleasures like watching TV. As we get older, progress toward self-improvement becomes its own reward. The better you become at your L2, the more people you can interact with and the richer your interactions become. Knowing this, you are willing to invest the time, energy, and resources to succeed.
So as you can see, adults have some tremendous advantages when it comes to language learning. You may not control your age, but you sure as heck have a say in what, when, and how you learn. Use that to your benefit. Leverage the mastery of your native language, your determination, your self-awareness, and your self-discipline to blast past your language goals and access the multitudinous opportunities awaiting you in your target language.
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Dörnyei, Z. (2009a). Individual differences: Interplay of learner characteristics and learning environment. Language Learning, 59, 230– 248.
Gass, S. (2013). Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course. 4th. Ed. New York: Routledge.
Krashen, S. D. (1981). Second language acquisition and second language learning. New York: Pergamon.
Krashen, S. (1985). The input hypothesis: Issues and implications. New York: Longman.
Lenneberg, E. H. (1967). The Biological Foundations of Language. Hospital Practice, 2(12), 59-67.
Mary Daphne founded Explearning to help clients fill cultural gaps in communication. With an Ed.M from Columbia University and over a decade of experience as a teacher trainer, curriculum developer, and language instructor, she loves exploring the intersection of language, culture, and education technology. In her spare time, you can find her hiking, filming, and composing children’s books.