The better our species can communicate with and understand each other the better our prospects for a peaceful, prosperous, and laughter filled future will be. Learning a new language increases the amount of knowledge and information we can access as well as the number of people we can share our knowledge and information with. Additional languages also allow us to step outside of our native language, culture, and to a certain extent ourselves, and view them as an outside observer which can provide us with new perspectives and invaluable insights. Furthermore learning language in itself is a great way to exercise the brain and stay mentally sharp as we age.
Learning a new language is not a matter of, nor does it depend a great deal on talent, youth, and/or living where the language you’re learning is spoken. Lets look at each of these misconceptions and see what’s really behind these half-truths and how anyone can obtain similar benefits at any age and in any place.
Although an aptitude for anything is a plus it’s nothing compared to quality and consistent practice. Moreover “talent” is commonly confused with passion which is what if anything should be attributed to a persons skill in something because passion is most effective in driving someone to practice. Instead of using a lack of “talent” as an excuse not to work hard, or make ourselves feel better about not working hard by attributing the success of others to their “talent” lets realize that passion is what’s important, and that with a little mental conditioning passion is something any of us can gain at any age and in any area of interest. Once we’re passionate about what we’re doing our passion will drive us to do it often and continually strive to do it better.
Although youth does provide some benefits in learning a new language so does wisdom and experience. Moreover many of the language-learning benefits that are commonly attributed to youth would be more accurately attributed to courage, curiosity, and cuteness. Courage can be attained by not being so self-conscious and by seeing language mistakes as progress rather than as failures because each time we make such mistakes the less likely we are to make them again in the future. Curiosity can be attained by looking at the world the way a child does without expectations and at what is rather than full of expectations and for what one thinks should be there. Cuteness… well the kids got us on this one and it’s rare for the average person to go out of their way to explain how to properly say something to an adult, however on the bright side most of us have smartphones and electronic dictionaries.
Living in a place the language you’re learning is spoken is ideal, however it is by no means a guarantee that you’ll learn a language any better or any faster than someone learning alone provided they have access to content and curriculum. This is because language environments aren’t found they’re created, and when it comes to learning a language the most important environment isn’t the one around you, but the one inside of your head. Only when you commit to thinking in your new language will you create the optimal learning environment and attain a state of full language immersion. However for most people achieving this level of immersion is impractical if not impossible so another option is to flip the language immersion switch a couple of hours before bed every evening and to do your best to maintain it until you go to sleep.
We all have the same linguistic hardware so technically there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to speak any human language just about as well as anyone else speaking it. With this in mind the first step in learning any language is to learn it’s sounds which depending on your native language and which language you’re learning could seem daunting, however I assure you it can be done regardless of your age. Changes in the brain do to take place as we enter adolescence which have a negative impact on acquiring new systems of pronunciation, however this doesn’t mean one can’t achieve a near native level, or even a native level of pronunciation as an adult provided they’re willing to put in the time and effort it takes.
When learning the sounds of a new language it’s best to avoid making sound associations between the language you’re studying and the ones you already know. Sure they may share some sounds, but instead of looking for similarities and saying this sounds like an “x” in my language or it sounds like a “y” with a little bit of “x” approach it like a baby learning a language for the first time and simply mimic what you hear without passing it though the filter of your native language, or trying to categorize it within those limiting contexts. Sure you won’t get it perfect right away and neither do children, but as you continue to mimic you’ll hone in your skills and eventually bridge the gap, or chasm, between what you sound like and what you’re supposed to sound like.
A good textbook is essential for getting a good start in a new language and regardless of which one you choose make sure it comes with full audio recorded by a native speaker with a standard accent. Also if you’re in it for the long-term and not just looking to get by on a business trip or vacation make sure that the textbook you choose is the first in a series that will take you through the basics, into the intermediate, and leave you in a place where you’re able to continue your studies on your own. Study beyond the intermediate level will require some educational and entertaining content in the language you’re learning, a good dictionary that’s preferably electronic and has a click/tap to lookup function, and ideally some native speakers to interact with.
Once you’ve covered some curriculum you’ll have some familiar audio to accompany you on your walks, during your commute, or during any other physical tasks that enable you to consciously listen while mimicking what you hear. At first this may seem impossible to do without pausing the audio, however after some time mimicking only the words and sentences you’re most familiar with you’ll gradually gain the ability to mimic the entire audio at full speed. As you become increasingly comfortable with the material it’s good to go back to the book once in a while to mimic the audio as you read the text until the curriculum goes from something you understand to something you’re capable of using and modifying by inserting new vocabulary into familiar grammar patterns.
Consistency is key and the key to staying consistent is learning, living, and loving your new language on a daily basis. I find that the best way to stay consistent while learning a new skill is to attach your study or practice time to either sleep or meals. For instance you know you’ll go to sleep every night, wake every morning, and eat at least twice every day so the time just before and after these habitual events is great for establishing good habits such as exercise or language study. You could even combine them by using your post meal walks to review the language audio you studied during your pre-sleep language immersion. Regardless of how you arrange your study and practice time be sure to make the most of it by giving it your full focus and attention.
In addition to studying your new language you will also need to live it and living it starts by incorporating it into your life in ways that it’s use becomes unavoidable and eventually natural. For instance changing the language of your internet browser and its homepage along with the language of your electronic devices is a good place to start. You can also accompany your morning workouts with music in your new language and sing along when possible. After a bout of morning exercise you could enjoy your breakfast while watching video or listening to audio in your new language. Your goal should be to gradually shift from learning a foreign language to learning in a foreign language, and by making it a habit to live your new language you’ll eventually achieve this goal.
Language is easily loved by appreciating the fact that it’s awesome and is what makes the lives we live possible. Other than seeing a wild animal in it’s native habitat that you didn’t know existed (colugo!) or eating a new type of fruit (marang!) I don’t know of anything cooler than hearing a new word that you just learned and thinking that if I didn’t learn that word last week the full meaning of that sentence would’ve gone right over my head; or how when you learn new words old songs in the language you’re learning slowly unfold and you start to understand what you’ve been working out to for the past few months or years. Passion is what you need and when you have it loving language will become as natural as living it and as habitual as learning it.
With regards to progress and perceived plateaus it’s important to remember the first and only law of skill/language acquisition: If you practice you will get better. You may not be able to see it on a day to day or a week to week basis, but I assure you with practice you will progress. Just know that when starting any language it’s easy to noticeably increase or even double your ability in a matter of days, weeks, or months however the more you know the less apparent your progress will become. Knowing more makes hearing those increasingly rare new and undiscovered words for the first time even more of a thrill, and with language the living and evolving thing it is you’ll always have new and interesting words and expressions to look forward to.
In conclusion, having more people versed in foreign languages, communicating with foreign friends, and consuming news and information from foreign sources improves humanities prospects for a peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable future. While learning a foreign language takes a lot of time and effort it’s easy to get started and most find the endless journey of learning a language to be an interesting and enjoyable challenge. So if you have the time, energy, and interest why not put forth the effort and learn a new language, or improve your ability in the ones you’ve already started learning and help humanity reap the rewards that increased communication and better understanding will bring.