Foreign Language Learning as an Adult

This post is a response to a comment left on my last post by someone who I will call Brandie. Like most people, she has always wanted to learn a foreign language. Brandie is interested in learning Greek and has access to native Greek speakers. She is concerned because she has no access Greek classes. It also worries her that she has reached the ripe old age of 20 and feels it may be too late to learn a foreign language well.  I began writing in the comment section but quickly realized that my comment was too long. I also thought that maybe my response could benefit or would be interesting to others.

Dear Brandie,

Children do not learn languages more easily than adults. The life of a child is set up to help him or her learn a language. Give an adult that much time and that kind of support and he’ll learn just as fast or faster. Children are also not expected to learn to speak in an eloquent or sophisticated way. How big is a five-year-old’s vocab? 200-300 words? Most adults feel very frustrated having to limit their self expression that way so they just give up.

Small children can learn to speak without an accent but for adults this is impossible to do all the time. If you really work on it then you can get a 75%-90% native sounding accent. That’s still worth the effort and plenty good enough to get you Greek friends (who don’t speak English) or a job where you need native Greek speakers to understand you. Guys like Richard Simcott have learned quite a few of their languages past the age of 25. I have learned all of my languages in adulthood and plan on learning more. Feel free to check out my videos. Keep in mind that I am not the most skilled polyglot on YouTube. If I can do what you see in these videos then you can too.

Greek is harder than Spanish or French but not a lot harder. I think you’ll find learning it a rewarding experience. No single learning method works for everyone 100%. You need to fine-tune your own method and this takes some time, creativity and trial and error analysis. Luca Lampariello, Moses McCormick, Steve Kaufmann, Benny Lewis and Robert Bigler are all polyglots who explain their independent learning techniques on YouTube. Check them out. If what they teach works for you then do it. If not then throw it out. Don’t be afraid to mix and match parts of their methods. Remember, this is about what works well for you.

I will say this, whatever method you settle on there are two simple things you need to keep in mind:

  1. Input (what you read, listen to, watch, etc.)
  2. Output (what you say, read or write)

Input

The famous language learning expert Stephen Krashen recommends listening to TONS of content in your target language that is 80% intelligible. Reading things that are interesting to you in the target language is also a good idea. Wikipedia is a decent place to go for that because there are lots of articles in both English and Greek. You need to find your sweet spot where you are not overwhelming yourself by needing to look up too many words to get the gist of what’s written/spoken but not so easy that you understand every single word. Again, it’s about finding the balance that works for you.

Output

You need to find a strong balance here as well between waiting too long to speak and not speaking soon enough. I recommend figuring out learning how to deal with short interactions first (Hi how are you? Find thanks, and you? I’m okay thank you, etc.). Pat yourself on the back every time you get your point across and understand more or less what they say in return. Do not try to be perfect at first. Do children wait to speak until they can speak perfectly? As Michel Thomas would say, “Just try to get the ball over the net.”

Another tool for improving the quality of your output is a foreign language journal. Speaking to people can be overwhelming because you have no time to look anything up. If you spend time writing at home then you will have that time. Again, don’t try to be too fancy at first. You need to walk before you can run with confidence. I recommend getting a book like Complete Greek (make sure you get it with the CDs). Treat it more like a guide rather than a strict instruction book. As you go through the different chapters ask yourself if you can tweak the materials to your personal needs. Before you try out your Greek on Greeks, I suggest writing it out in your journal first. The chat rooms at SharedTalk.com and The Polyglot Club can also give you the opportunity to practice Greek in a situation where you have time to look things up. Just make sure you get online well after the time when Greeks get off work.

Balance Daniel San!

I want to stress the idea of balance one more time. If you expect yourself to be perfect or very advanced too soon then you will disappoint yourself and eventually give up. If you get complacent with just getting your point across in caveman Greek then you will miss out on the joy and experiences that only fluency can bring you. Do your best and be happy be with that but try to make your best a little better every time. I wish you luck with learning Greek!

9 Responses

  1. Thank you for a wonderful post! Language-learning is set up for babies, but adults can be good, too. I believe that if one studies a language for a year, and doesn’t talk during that year, and then for a year just says random words to express what they think they mean, and then for a year really tries to say some kind of sentences (correct or not), then they will sound like a native 3 year old.

    But this assumes that the people around them think they are cute and think that their efforts at learning language are just adorable.

    • Great point! Even if one doesn’t wait a year to begin communicating with natives, it’s still good to seek out people who will be patient with your imperfect Language X.

  2. Completely agree. That “children learn languages faster than adults myth” needs to die in a fire, I’m sick of it. They do not. What kind of competence can a child achieve with a language in 5 years if they start at age 2 let’s say? Ok, now what can an adult do in 5 years? Native-level fluency, that’s what. A child can’t even come close to that, it’ll take them another decade to reach the same level that adult achieved in 5 years. Adults learn much faster than children.

    And yes, an adult can learn to speak a foreign language with no hint of an accent, I’ve seen people do it (I knew a Japanese girl in college who spoke English with a perfect American accent–everybody thought she was simply an American of Asian descent unless they were told she was Japanese, no one could ever tell from her speech).

    Cheers,
    Andrew

    • Thanks for the comment Andrew. Adult foreign language learning is indeed more accessible than most people think.

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  4. I agree – adults have the ability to learn a second language just as easily as children (the only issue is accent). If you put the time and energy in to learning a new language, there is nothing stopping you. If you are motivated to learn it, it’s absolutely possible.

  5. I love this post. I’m an American living in Germany with my family, and my four-year-old son is of kindergarten age. Some of my colleagues insist that their children have become “fluent” in German because of kindergarten. While I don’t want to diminish their kids’ accomplishments, I’m skeptical about whether a preschooler can even be “fluent” even in his or her primary language. As you said, the kids more likely picked up a couple hundred words (still awesome, but not fluent) and can get by with body language and a patient teacher. What irritates me most about this is that several of my colleagues feel bad that their kids haven’t picked up much German at all in kindergarten, as if the kid is deficient, when it’s much, much more likely that the kid is simply more honest about his or her abilities.

    • I feel you. It’s not about bashing the kids. We’re just pointing out that comparing us to them is like comparing apples to oranges. Thanks for reading.

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