Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Is there any hope for adult language learners?

I spent a good chunk of my evening researching the adult brain's ability to take on a new language. I found some promising information.

Yes, it seems like kids are better able to naturally pick up a new language, but just being over the age of twelve doesn't mean your brain cannot rewire itself to functionally learn a new language, too.

In a 2005 Science Daily articleDr Paul Iverson of the UCL Centre for Human Communication, says the difficulties we have with learning languages in later life have little to do with biology.  

Dr Iverson said, "Adult learning does not appear to become difficult because of a change in neural plasticity. Rather, we now think that learning becomes hard because experience with our first language 'warps' perception. We see things through the lens of our native language and that 'warps' the way we see foreign languages."

So how do I "unwarp my brain?"

The key is obviously immersion.

And to stop wasting time bemoaning the fact that I'm are no longer an "unwarped child"

According to a 2010 Forbes article, "Programs designed to mimic the learning methods of children are...a waste of time and money...Children are good at learning the underlining system of all the language input they get because they can infer the underlying patterns without understanding the rules. Adults must be conscientious of the rules of the language. Their implicit learning doesn't work all that well."

So another key to "unwarping" my brain may be to take advantage of the things I can do as an adult that I couldn't as a child.

In an article on, Shana Lebowitz writes, "adults are generally literate, understand abstractions, and have decent attention spans... — all skills that come in handy when learning a new language. In terms of study habits, adults usually organize their time better than kids do."

She suggests that maybe our difficulty with new languages has something to do with our inability to relax. We worry so much about pronouncing things correctly and understanding the grammatical structure that we are too cowed to even let words come out.

I can totally identify with this. In my hour long tutoring sessions, I have to let go of the desire to say everything perfectly, otherwise it cripples me and I'm unable to communicate anything. I have to allow myself to sound stupid, so I can learn. 

Shana Lebowitz writes about language learning classes that are taught through drama and singing. It is as if tapping into the less logical parts of your brain, helps you survive and thrive in an immersive language learning situation. Maybe working the logical and the less logical parts of your brain at the same time is the best way to forge those language connections in your brain.

And even though this research gives me some hope that I can indeed become a fluent speaker of Spanish, the Forbes article tempers that hope by reminding me that having some language aptitude and making a considerable effort to practice daily are the only ways to make any headway.

I can't do much to change my aptitude, except pray my brain has the elasticity to take these language lessons in.

But I can practice, practice, practice; and give myself permission to bludgeon my way through these lessons in order to communicate and learn.

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