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Tips for Learning a New Language as an Adult

(If you just want to see the tips and don’t care about my background, scroll down)

I began learning Mandarin Chinese when I was 47 years old. I had had a life long dream of learning another language, but had met with discouragement. When I signed up for German in junior high, I ended up with a teacher who thought we would all enjoy going out to play soccer instead. Soccer is a fine activity, but I wasn’t learning much German. Just into the second semester, I decided to quit the class. I was getting plenty of exercise outside of class.

In spite of this, I got enough exposure to the concepts of a language different than my own that I gained fascinating insights into my native American English. I became atune to the general wisdom about learning languages, like it is easier to do when younger and how important trying to regularly converse in the foreign language is. When we decided to teach our own children at home, I knew I wanted to start them learning a new language asap.

We chose Spanish for them. It was a language that seemed like they might have more opportunity to use. It was also the language, at the time, for which there were the most resources. There had not yet been the influx of immigrants from a wide variety of countries into our more rural community. The internet was not what it is today, either. My sister helped me hook up with a friend of hers (now my dear friend, too), who had studied Spanish extensively in both high school and college, including living in Spain for a while. She was fluent and she liked to teach. It was a perfect match.

However, I felt too overwhelmed by my responsibilities to become more than a lesson coordinator. I knew that one group, 2 hour session a week for the kids was not going to be enough for them to get the level of immersion that they needed to make more than academic progress. It wasn’t about passing tests or having a good looking transcript. I wanted them to be able to think and speak in Spanish. From the start, I was constantly in conversation with the tutor about what she was teaching the kids. I began coming up with other methods for them to listen and speak during the week. By the time each of them graduated from high school, they were fluent, often being complimented on their accents by native speakers, sometimes actually being asked what country they were from when they engaged in a Spanish conversation.

One year, when we were back down to only teaching 3 high school age kids at home, we had the chance to go live in Taiwan for a while for my husband’s job. Because his employer was not needing to help us pay for international institutional education, they were thrilled to offer us the much less expensive option of having tutors for Chinese twice a week. Finally, I was going to learn another language! I was very excited.

There were many things I had used to help my kids that I began to use in my learning journey. Yes, it was harder for me than the 3 kids. Not only did they have another language to guide learning the new one, but they weren’t trying to run a household in a country where they didn’t speak the language. My level of immersion into the culture was about backwards what it should be good for learning. We were speaking English at home, but I had to try Chinese when shopping for things like groceries. This often lead to a high amount of frustration and sometimes despair. I thought I would never learn or be able to communicate.

We only ended up living in Taiwan for about 9 months, but I wasn’t ready to give up on learning Chinese. I was pretty sure that if I stopped, I might never pick it up again. And I didn’t want to lose what little I had learned. Besides that, the kids had a good base now and it would be good for them to keep it up a couple more years. Amazingly, we found a native speaker as a tutor in the town right next to our home town. She was excited at the level of understanding we had picked up in Taiwan, even if our vocabulary and speaking skills were limited. Let me emphasize limited. But our short time in the culture had had subtle language learning benefits. We arranged for lessons once a week and have now been doing that for 4 years more. Two of the kids have graduated and moved on to college during that time, so it is just me and one daughter now.

I wish I could say that after that long that I am fluent in Chinese. I can hold simple conversations, but I have been tempted to quit more than once. I’m glad I didn’t, though. What I can say is that I seem to be picking up speed in my learning at long last. I recently had an introductory conversation with a couple of young families from Shanghai. They happened to be visiting Jackson, Wyoming, where my husband and I were providing transportation for an adult child. I had gulped and attempted to speak to them. It ended up being very encouraging to me and fun for everyone, even my non-Chinese speaking husband. Maybe my old brain just needed regular exposure to the language for a while before it really began to click.

Here are some of my suggestions for learning a new language as an adult:

Beginning Choices and Perspectives:

  • Choose a language that is in current use and the population using it is not dwindling. Unless you have a specific and likely goal of needing to use an obscure dialect, you want a language that you will more easily be able to find resources and conversations in. For instance, in Taiwan, there were at least 4 languages to choose from, but almost all of the population had Mandarin Chinese in common, so that is what we studied. It doesn’t matter to you if that language was imposed politically or not.
  • Think about languages in your area. You might do a little research and be surprised to find quite a variety.
  • If you are drawn to a certain culture, consider learning a language that is used by them.
  • Let go of memories of institutional academic approaches. You are going to be like a 2 year old just learning to talk about the things of interest, trying to communicate with people that matter. There will be no tests and time is just a tool.

Beginning to Learn:

  • Regular sessions with a tutor or otherwise cooperative native speaker help a lot. In my experience, independent tutors often charge about the same as music teachers. Sometimes you can find someone who wants to trade for practicing English. What you need the most from this is motivation to practice to be ready for those conversations. An added benefit is that a native speaker can answer specific questions. A good tutor will also guide and encourage, even if you have trouble being consistent in your practice some weeks.
  • While it may be helpful to begin with a teaching program to learn a little basic vocabulary, it can be confining and dry. And classroom like. Instead, consider using children’s stories about subjects of interest. I found lots of Spanish children’s books in regular book stores. Recently, I have been able to purchase  Chinese books on amazon.com. If you have a chance to travel where the language is spoken, always try to pick up a few books then; or find out if your tutor has any connections with residents where the language is spoken to help get some sent to you.
  • Stock up on dictionaries. I have around 10 different Chinese dictionaries, from picture dictionaries to category dictionaries. They have all been useful.
  • Find a good translator app for your computer, iPad, etc. I have KTdict C-E for my iPad. It has a function that allows me to draw a Chinese character and it will give me options. It would have been so nice to have this when I lived in Taiwan, but iPads were still pretty new then.
  • Studying little bits on most days is better than trying to do a lot at once.
  • Just before bed or even when trying to fall asleep is a good time to study. I have found that thinking about the language close to bedtime increases the chances that my brain will work on it while I’m sleeping. In such times, I do everything from absentmindedly make up sentences in my mind while falling asleep to dream about it to wake up thinking about it. Thinking about the language intentionally while trying to fall asleep can be diverting and relaxing, too. Resist the temptation to go look things up, though. Just think about what you do know and play with it in your mind.
  • Make both listening and speaking out loud regular activities. Concentrating too much on reading and writing, particularly at first, runs the risk of bogging you down. It may be used to reinforce or for fun, but it will be easier once you have more grasp on the language. It will also tend to come somewhat naturally as you study. Again, think of a young child. We don’t insist that reading come along right with speaking. Yes, the child is not as mature, but you can see that reading comes along fine later.

Specific Tools and Methods:

  • Get ahold of all manner of recordings, beginning at a young child’s level. You might be surprised how interesting those simple resources can be. There are lots of videos (stories, songs, even grammar explanations) on youtube.com nowadays. Get your tutor or native speaking friends to record stories for you. There are probably lots of CDs on the market for the young children who are part of the culture that speaks the language. I know there have been for both Chinese and Spanish.
  • Start collecting animated movies with language tracks that you want. I prefer the animated movies because 1) they tend to be on simple subjects, more concrete; and 2) my brain isn’t constantly struggling with the fact that the lips don’t match the words I hear. Many movies in the US already have a Spanish track. Netflix sometimes has good language options for it’s movies. Last I looked, there were some options for DVD players on amazon.com that could play regional discs. You could also buy a computer that plays DVDs and set it to the desired zone. You just have to remember that they often limit how many times that function can be changed.
  • Make yourself speak the language aloud and seize opportunities to practice. For instance,  a few months ago I overheard Chinese speakers in our local mall. After a few moments I ventured to ask them something. That time I didn’t communicate as well as the time in Jackson mentioned above, but every little bit gets you further along. One thing to keep in mind is that your chances of staying in the language you want to practice are statistically better if the native speaker is not fluent in your native language. It is just too easy for everyone to switch to what flows most easily!
  • Remember that no matter what the language, there will be good speakers, lazy speakers, accents, slang, impatient people. Whether or not you understand is not totally up to you.
  • When you listen to things, sometimes just listen and let your mind latch onto what is familiar. Once in a while go back to stories that were hard before and be encouraged at how much more you understand.
  • Other times when you listen, stop and repeat whole phrases and sentences. No matter how well you can recite things in your mind, you speaking will be stilted if your mouth is not used to forming the words.
  • Look at international labels with new interest. You may not understand much, but it is a fun little exercise to see what you do recognize and it may stimulate new questions for your conversation times.
  • Obviously, travel to places where the language is spoken, if possible. Your interest in the language will make you enjoy the location more. Most of the residents will be excited about your efforts.
  • Even if life throws you a curve ball, or time gets away from you, don’t give up. Keep getting together with the tutor, or conversationalist. If you stop meeting “because you haven’t practiced” you will only retard things further. Once every week or two is better than nothing. However, the newer you are at the language, the more important it is to work on it more daily.
  • If distance is an issue, use something like Skype for lessons. Once our Chinese tutor needed to go back to Taiwan for a few months to take care of sick parents. We continued with weekly lessons via the internet. Even with the kids’ Spanish tutor, if the schedule or the weather were making life difficult, we could use Skype.

You don’t need to have mastered a language to use it and benefit from it. Face it, you are probably still learning things about your native language. That is the way of life. Enjoy the journey of learning and the opportunities for communication it brings.

(I will list some of the resources that I have used for Chinese in another post)

  • Vesta

    “You don’t need to have mastered a language to use it
    and benefit from it. Face it, you are probably still learning things
    about your native language. That is the way of life. Enjoy the journey
    of learning and the opportunities for communication it brings.”It’s been well said.

    Kids learn languages fast, because they are always relax with their minds and bodies , the sounds , the tones of languages much easier to register in the memories of the kids’ brains. From my own experiences , I learned and am still learning several languages(without any particular purpose ) , I start from practicing the basic pronunciation of that language, then find songs(children’s or popular) of that language that please my ears , learn to sing along with ,while singing we are usually more relaxed, until I feel myself mimic the lyrics almost perfectly , first I didn’t even undestand the meaning of the song , but after I can sing , I found much easier to undestand and remember the meanings of the lyrics, that helps me to build the confidence to say out loud with that language later.

    Of course , always have to use tools as Laura stated ( books, dictionaries , the movies DVD ,now a day more convnient tools are everywhere on internet ).
    while I’m learning a languge , I fall in love with the culture of that language, and I’m having so much fun.

  • lauraimprovises

    Thank you for taking time to comment, Vesta! (she is my Chinese teacher)

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