Summer is almost over, Christmas is almost upon us and before you know it, we’ll be starting a brand new year! New Years: a time for celebrations, fresh ambition and New Year’s Resolutions. Did you know that one of the things more and more English-speakers are resolving to do is to learn a foreign language? And yet, so many potential polyglots (that’s someone who speaks a lot of languages) are holding back, scared to fail and preferring to make excuses.
I’ve taught languages for over a decade, and on three different continents, and here are some of the most common reasons that I’ve come across that stop people trying a new language on for size, and why they are all absolutely not true.
I’m not good at languages!
Anybody who is able to say this sentence is flat-out lying. Why? Because anybody with the ability to communicate in their mother tongue is already a successful language learner. Within the first few years of your life, you managed an incredible feat- making sense of, replicating and mastering the sound and melody of what you heard from your caregivers and the world around you, with hardly any structure at all. You learned to say “I went,” and not “I goed,”; “he is” and not “he are”; to make your voice go up at the end of a question and down at the end of the statement. Nobody taught you these things.
You and your incredibly complex brain did it all by yourself. The trouble is that we usually try to learn (and teach) language as if it were any other subject- by presenting it as information to be remembered rather than a habit and skill to be acquired. So you are good at languages- you’ve already excelled at the language learning once before. And guess what: your brain is more than capable of repeating the process.
I’m too old…
So, nobody is going to argue with the science of brain plasticity. Basically the brain is more malleable and ready to absorb new information when you are a child than when you are an adult. But the brain is a muscle, so-to-speak, and needs regular exercise in order to function at its best. So the more you use it for certain types of activities, the better it will perform. If you look at language learning as a test of memory- how many words or grammatical structures will you remember and be able to recite- then you will invariably “fail” at language learning.
But if you consider learning a language the same as any other skill-using it until it becomes second nature, you will find that age isn’t an obstacle. In fact, in my experience teaching adults of all ages, I have found that the biggest obstacle in older learners is letting go of the learning habits they formed at school (e.g. repeating, drilling, writing out long lists etc.) that can, at times, be counter-productive to language learning. If the older generation can work out Facebook, smart phones and automatic cars, there is no reason why an older brain can’t learn a new language.
I don’t have time…
You may not have time to go to classes four times a week. You may not have time to translate pieces of writing back and forth. You may not even have the time to work your way through a language activity book. But here’s some good news: language learning is not as time consuming as you may think! I like to think of language as something to be absorbed, rather than studied. Language classes, and by that I mean good, quality, communicative, language classes, are a great investment of both your time and your money, but if they are beyond your reach for the time being, there is plenty you can do to simulate immersion into the foreign language (immersion really is the best way to learn a language- this is why children and people living in foreign countries pick up the local lingo so quickly).
Everybody can set their technology to the language they are learning- TV, phone, laptop and anything else that you regularly use. Anybody can listen to music, the radio and watch films in a foreign language- with subtitles in the target language if your level of understanding permits. Everybody has “in-between time” in which they can peruse magazines or read storybooks in the target language, or even practice writing foreign letters in a notebook or on their phone. There are plenty more ways to absorb language without taking up too much time in your day.
Language is primarily a means of communication, so anybody who is able to communicate has the capacity to learn to do so in a foreign language. That being said, our brains are all wired in different ways so some people may be more adept at some aspects of language than others. For example some people have great pronunciation, but very poor grammar; some have wonderful fluency, but struggle with spelling. But with the right resources and, above all, the right attitude, anybody can become fluent in a foreign language!
Featured photo credit: www.brainscape.com via brainscape.com