How Adults Learn: 6 Important Things to Know
“I’ll never learn to run with the stamina of Paula Radcliffe, so why bother training for a marathon?”
“I’ll never win a Nobel Prize in maths, so what’s the point of studying it at all?”
“I’ll never play cello like Yo-Yo Mah, so I shouldn’t even start.”
How do these excuses sound to you? If, like me, you love to learn for the sake of learning, they probably sound quite lame.
Yet so many language learners let themselves be swayed by similar excuses:
- “I don’t have the language gene.”
- “I’ll never have a perfect French accent.”
- “I’m too old to ever be fluent in a new language”
- “I didn’t do it as a child, so why start now?”
The “I’m too old” excuse is one I hear a lot. I even said it to myself as a young adult, when I still only spoke one language fluently. Now, over a decade later, I’m fluent in seven languages.
Putting aside the fact that there’s no conclusive proof that children learn languages any better than adults, would it really matter if they did? Children are good at learning languages. They’re good at learning, full stop. But adults are absolutely not bad at learning. In fact, they’re extremely good at it. Just look around the web at all the people who have successfully reached fluency, even mastery, in another language well into adulthood with no previous foreign language experience.
With that in mind, I’ve investigated how adults learn – from a scientific point of view. You can use these insights to your advantage when hashing out a study plan for your target language.
1. The Ability to Learn Vocabulary is not Related to Age
Whatever advantages children may have in language acquisition, such as more easily learning to speak without an accent, they don’t have an advantage where it counts: learning the actual words required to speak a language.
Vocabulary is far more important to learning a language than accent. In fact, accent isn’t an indicator at all of your competence with a language, regardless of some people’s preconceived notions to the contrary.
What’s more, as an adult, you can use hacks for memorising vocabulary quickly, which I’d argue work even better as an adult. Adults have more life experience and can invent more memorable stories as mnemonics to make the new vocabulary stick.
If a native accent is one of your goals, go for it! A good accent can change people’s perception of you, even if you don’t speak the language any better than someone with a foreign accent. A native-sounding accent is not impossible, no matter how old you are. It just takes a bit more effort. Which brings me to my next point…
2. Adults are More Motivated to Learn than Children
If you’re an adult thinking about learning a second language, chances are, it’s not out of necessity (though obviously for a small percentage of people, it is). It’s morely likely that you want to learn a new language for some personal motivation. Perhaps to experience other cultures in a more authentic way, to appreciate the arts and literature of another country, or to keep your mind sharp.
On the other hand, how many kids do you know who like to do extra homework after school when they don’t have to? Not many, I’d guess! The only reason most kids go to school and do homework at all is because they’re sent there by their parents. When you reach adulthood, however, you realise the benefits of learning for the sheer pleasure of it. As a result, you’re more motivated. This extra motivation means learning more quickly and efficiently. Consequently, the learning process itself becomes more enjoyable.
Not only are adults more motivated to learn for learning’s sake, but also because of the immediate reward they get from learning something new, which children don’t get. And that is…
3. Adults Get to Immediately Apply What They’ve Learned
When you were a kid in school, I bet you wondered more than once why you had to multiply compound fractions, or learn verb conjugations for a language you wouldn’t be able to use outside of class for years and years, if ever. None of what you were learning was relevant to your day-to-day kid life, so you didn’t see the big picture about why it was useful. That’s understandable! It’s not easy for anyone, much less a child, to enthusiastically learn something that they won’t use for ten or twenty years!
You have a big advantage as an adult, however, in that you can get out there today and practise the things you learned yesterday. There are few places where this is more evident than in language learning. Unlike many other disciplines, you don’t have to wait until you’re ready before you go out and speak a language. Even if you only know ten words, you can go out on day one and use those ten words to successfully communicate with native speakers.
When you’re able to see such immediate success, you’re far more likely to continue studying. Compare this with children who have to sit in a classroom for years, memorising vocabulary like “stapler”, “moose”, and a host of other words that are irrelevant to daily life, for the sole purpose of passing a test. No wonder so many children drop their second language course at the first chance.
As an adult, you can forget about staplers and moose and just learn the vocabulary that’s relevant to you right now, giving you the ability to instantly go and have a conversation in your target language using that vocabulary. You can learn whatever and however you want, and still get the most out of your studying, because…
4. Adults Have Control Over Their Learning Environment
I love being an adult! I’m all grown up, settled down, and exceptionally mature for my age. Well, ok, I’m all grown up at least!
Grown-ups have something that children don’t: control over their daily lives. If you want cake for supper, you can eat as much cake as you like.
You also have control over your learning environment as an adult. When studying your target language, you get to experiment and find out how you learn best. Then you can go ahead and learn that way. No more relying exclusively on teachers with pre-determined lesson plans that offer no flexibility in what you learn, or how you learn it. I’m sure there are some people out there who learn languages best in a classroom, but if (like me) you’re not one of them, then you might have fooled yourself as a child into thinking that you were no good at languages.
Now that you’re an adult, you’ll see that there are nearly as many ways to effectively learn a language as there are language learners. All it takes is a bit of trial and error to find the combination of language hacks that works best for you.
And once you start studying a new language, you’ll quickly gain momentum in your learning. The reason for this is…
5. The More Adults Learn, The Easier Learning Becomes
One of the reasons adults supposedly learn more slowly is simply because they’re out of practice. The phrase “use it or lose it” couldn’t be more apt when it comes to your brain.
Every time you learn something new, you create new synapses and increase the plasticity of your brain. This makes it easier for you to retain the skills you’ve learned, improve on these skills, and continue learning new things. That’s why I can go for months without practising some of my languages, but can then spend just a few days polishing up the areas where I’m rusty, and get right back to the level I was at before.
If you don’t use a skill for a while, but you spend the meantime using your brain to learn other skills (such as another language, a musical instrument, or even juggling) then what you’re doing is improving your ability to learn. As a result, you can re-learn the old skill more quickly, as well as more easily learn entirely new skills. You’ll gain momentum. You’ll see results more quickly, and get hooked on learning. It will become a lifelong process.
When it comes to learning a language, however, just practising over and over again, like you would practise the piano, isn’t really effective. You’ll want to use your language in interactive ways in order to improve. Which brings me to my final point…
6. Adults Learn Languages Faster When They Get Feedback
This should be no surprise. However much you might consider yourself shy and introverted, best suited to studying alone at home, there’s simply no substitute for interactive feedback in your language learning. The easiest and most efficient way to get it is by talking with real people in your target language.
If you only practise by yourself at home for hours, without getting any real feedback about your progress, then don’t be surprised if you fail to meet your language goals and end up losing motivation. Don’t get me wrong: tools like Duolingo and spaced repetition software are an extremely useful supplement to your language learning. You can use them to study vocabulary and grammar. But if you want to be sure that you’re actually using the language correctly, talk with a native speaker who can provide feedback. Not only will you learn to use the language more effectively, you’ll get a better ear for it and start to pronounce it more closely to native speech.
How Adults Learn: Your Attitude is a far Better Predictor of Success than Your Age
You can learn a language at any age. Sixteen or sixty! If you want to learn a new language but have yet to begin, then the only thing holding you back is your mindset. Like the old saying goes: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right”.
Yes, your individual results might vary compared to other people’s, but guess what? No matter how good you are, there will always be someone better. You’re never going to be the very best in the world at anything – especially languages. But why worry about that?
Stop comparing yourself to others. Stop making excuses. Get out there and learn something!