Having tried and tried again to learn various foreign languages since graduating from a very expensive college, I have resigned myself to the fact that it is nearly impossible. But then, when I take a minute and start to think about all the men and women who learn foreign languages as a result of a work requirement (in a short period of time to boot) or because they are married to someone of a different nationality, I begin to wonder, is it really that difficult? Research shows that except for minor considerations such as hearing and vision loss as a result of age, an adult learner is not handicapped when it comes to language acquisition.
So, this begs the question, what seems to be the problem? Linguists would agree that there is a “critical period” during which there is a heightened ability to learn a second language. However, what that period is has not been defined. Back to the question at hand: Why am I unable to pick up anything other than my mother tongue? The answer, in my opinion, is all about context and emotion.
First, the context in which adults learn has a major influence on their ability to converse, read, and write in a new language. Many times as adults, we become hooked on the idea that to acquire a language, we must learn it. In other words we must know the grammar rules, syntax and construction. However, this is not how we were taught as children. Before we entered our first English class, it is safe to say that most of us had a decent command of the English language and could converse with our families. We did that by listening. Children learn inductively and through interaction. As children we listened to those around us speaking and over time began to understand and recognize patterns. Then, we started to form sentences and soon after, began to speak. Acquiring the language, therefore, took precedence over learning it.
After having tried and failed many times to speak another language, I believe that it is essential to be immersed in an environment in which the language is used. The few times I have made significant progress in my foreign language aptitude was when I was visiting that foreign country for an extended period of time. Just because we are adults does not necessarily mean we need formal lessons – sometimes informal teaching goes just as far.
Second, as an adult, the idea of learning another language can be a psychological challenge. As young children, we are not nearly as affected by what others think or as worried about failure. As adults, we fear failure and sometimes lack the self-confidence to really take the plunge. We worry that our pronunciation will be off or that people will not understand us. To address these feelings, adult foreign language teachers must be able to reduce anxiety and build self-confidence in the learner.
Finally, it is impossible to ignore aptitude. Just as some of us are destined to be mathematicians or physicists, some people are just better at picking up foreign languages. Perhaps it is the way their brain is wired. All in all, learning a foreign language requires time and dedication. One must also understand what method of learning works best. That means in an attempt to succeed you might have to purchase Rosetta Stone, take a language class at the local university and travel to Spain for six months. It is a very individual process, the only caveat being the last of these choices would certainly be the most fun.