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Learning a new language as an adult

Learning a foreign language in adulthood can be very difficult but not impossible. Although children have an easier learning journey, adults can too. The secret lies in having an agile mind, imitating native accents, persisting with your goals and, above all, having a lot of patience. Here are some ways to keep yourself motivated. 

Learning is a gradual process

Regular practice is by far the most important element of learning a new language. When we begin to learn a new language, we often try to cram as much into our heads as possible. This will eventually lead to burn out. So how do we maximize our learning? First of all, it is important to understand that learning is a gradual process. A good way to start is to take a class and be exposed to the language a few times per week, plus homework. In addition, spending a few minutes a day (about 10-15 minimum) thinking, reading, and speaking in the target language will help us progress. Here are some simple tips to maximize our learning experience:

  • Speaking out loud in the foreign language whenever we are alone is a good way to practice. We should start by describing simple actions, such as: “I go to work, I live in Italy, I am a student.” Let’s repeat them over and over and then change the subject. For example: “Simon goes to work, lives in Italy and is a student.”  
  •   While walking or running errands, we should listen to a podcast in the target language or review the
    vocabulary we just learned (e.g. we can record the vocabulary on our phone and play it while we do other things).

  • Repeating the basics and adding some new weekly elements is a great way to learn. I recommend
    incorporating the present tense, modal verbs (should, would, could, must, may) and the verb “I like.”

Enroll in a class

Attending a language class is one of the best ways to motivate ourselves. The fact that we are held accountable for producing oral and written material before the teacher and other students will help keep us on task. When our financial situation allows it, hiring a private tutor to customize our learning experience will also go a long way.

Choose the right resources to kick-start our learning journey

If we decide to start learning on our own, let’s make sure to choose the right resources, such as a good book with audio material for pronunciation. There are also plenty of language apps out there that can support our learning. However, apps do not cover all the aspects of the language as a personal tutor or a live class would. For example, apps like Duolingo are great for learning the basics and vocabulary, but they lack practical speech. Bottom line, we should try to diversify our learning sources as much as possible.

Full immersion

Whenever possible, let’s bring the language to us by attaching stickers to items all around our home with their name in the language we’re learning. This is an excellent vocabulary-building technique. We should also make sure we hear the language everywhere. Listening to music, radio stations, or watching movies (with subtitles in our language in the beginning) will get us acclimatized to the native accent, cadence and pattern. Even if understanding is tough in the beginning, being exposed to the language will get our ears accustomed to it!

Reading also helps. We should read about familiar topics and start easy with kids’ books made of simple sentences and pictures. Once we learn high frequency words and more vocabulary, we can move gradually to longer and more complicated texts.

Last, let’s make sure to befriend a native speaker or practice the language orally whenever and wherever we can (e.g. at the grocery store, at the café, etc.). Our goal is to interact with native speakers as much as we can. It’s important to give the language a try and don’t wait until we feel totally comfortable, otherwise we will never start. 

Relax

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The biggest hurdle to learning a new language is psychological. If we’re nervous when we interact with strangers, then let’s start with baby steps. If we begin to use bits and pieces of the language here and there, we also begin to gain our confidence. Once we feel comfortable, let’s try to make longer sentences (e.g. ask the teacher in her native tongue how her weekend was or make a comment about the food that the waiter at the café just brought us). If we kick ourselves for every little mistake (and, believe me, it is totally normal that we will make plenty!), we’ll never progress. Let’s mentally relax and take a deep breath while we interact. It’s surprising how far our confidence will take us.