If you are reading this, there are high chances you want or need to learn a new language. Whether it is something you want to accomplish for yourself or something that you need to do in order to be promoted at your job, learning a new language is a process that involves effort, patience and passion.
I am now 27 years old and have learned two foreign languages: English and Dutch. Both are part of the Germanic languages, while my native language is Romanian, part of the Romance languages. It would have been easier for me to learn French or Italian, but I have chosen — or the circumstances of my life have pushed me — to learn these not so musical and full of consonants languages. But although it is easier to learn a new language related to our native one, our mind has the amazing capacity to learn any language, however distant it may be on the map of linguistic families.
If learning English began as a mixture of watching Cartoon Network and school lessons, the process of learning Dutch began when I was 19 years old and I applied to the Faculty of Foreign Languages in my hometown, miles away from the countries where Dutch was spoken. Regardless of the approach — first exposure to the language and then structural learning or the other way around — you will face obstacles. But how do you conquer them?
Understanding the obstacles
Presuming you are not a child, you have already noticed that your ability to learn new skills has diminished. It is not impossible to acquire new knowledge or to develop and improve your cognitive capacities, but it does take effort: conscious and painful effort. Those articles on learning languages in incredibly small amounts of time are not working, those apps that will make you a native after you upgrade to the pro package are not making the process less challenging and you reached the point where you need to face the truth. Learning foreign languages is difficult, takes time and effort and can be discouraging. Unless you are one of those few gifted persons who can learn languages really fast due to their special neurology, you will eventually have to face the struggles and obstacles mentioned above.
According to a study from 2018 on second language acquisition, one reason why it becomes increasingly difficult to learn a second language is that our grammar-learning ability declines in adolescence. Although the scientific world does not have a clear answer to why this happens, new studies suggest that our decline in language acquisition is influenced by the development of our prefrontal cortex. A new study from 2017, tries to find if there is indeed a competition between our language learning mechanisms and the cognitive functions developing in our prefrontal cortex during adolescence. The results showed that the capacity to learn a new language in young adults improves after a temporary neural disruption of the left Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex. This confirms the theory that once our mind starts focusing on the activities centered on our prefrontal cortex, our capacity to learn a new language decreases.
However, there are multiple other factors involved in the process. From your brain’s neurological structure to how much you are exposed to the language you wish to learn, you will face various challenges.
Conquering the obstacles
While it might seem that the odds are against us, there are plenty of people proficient in a second language that they have learned long after childhood ended.
As with most things in life, there is no easy recipe you can follow that will give you the desired results in a definite amount of time. Nonetheless, there are actions you can take to make your learning journey easier and more efficient.
- Embrace the culture. I love the Dutch and Flemish culture, their tolerant behavior from the last decades, their openness and beautiful cities. With British, American or Australian culture, the cultural diversity is huge, and while there are certain things I dislike, I do admire many other aspects. For those who are only learning the language because they are forced by the circumstances, it might seem like a loss of time to study the country’s history, to understand the civilization or where their stereotypes come from. However, I consider that discovering the culture of the people speaking the language you want to learn is essential. By doing that, you will gain the capacity to understand where the expressions that sound ridiculous or non-sensical come from. And if you actually understand them, you will remember them better and use them correctly. But it is not only about expressions and idioms, which usually come later in the phases of learning a language. Studies show we are culturally biased, preferring information from our native language. This means that if we reject the culture, it will be more difficult for us to acquire new words or phrases. By embracing the culture, we find better motivation to learn the language and our mind becomes more open to the new vocabulary of that particular language.
- Get exposed to the language. We learn our native language by being exposed to it. It comes naturally and our parents don’t have to be grammar teachers in order to teach us how to communicate. Exposure is incredibly beneficial even when learning a foreign language. Although it would be ideal to live in the country where the language is spoken, you have other options to connect to the language. Depending on your level, you can watch movies in that particular language, read books or magazines, or listen to podcasts. Even if you have a beginner’s level, you still have the option to watch the movies with subtitles while taking notes. When I began to study Dutch, I was often watching movies from Belgium or The Netherlands, although I could not understand 90 percent of the spoken language. But I kept on pausing the movie, noting down phrases that I found interesting, building a habit that I still find useful when I understand 90 percent of what they are talking about. A new study from 2019 shows that being exposed to the language improves your vocabulary more than the lessons in class. The participants who studied more French classes than English managed to have a better command of English because they were exposed to English outside classes. It is then no surprise that most non-native English speakers can understand a phrase like “I love you” as they often watch American cinematography or listen to British/American songs. The basic idea is that the more you are exposed to a language, the better your proficiency in it becomes.
Embracing the culture and getting yourself exposed to the language are the processes that make learning a language fun and that can often be effortless. These are not activities you need to schedule, but small things you can easily include in your daily life that will keep you motivated and in touch with the language you want to learn.
They are also the keys to learning the language effectively as staring at a textbook with words and grammar and no other contact with the language will never bring the desired results, but will create a machine capable of producing correct sentences without any feeling of the actual language.
But language learning, especially if you are not living in the country where the language is spoken, also implies exercise and practice.
Create a plan that you can actually stick to
It is important to create a plan in which you set your goals, the steps you need to undertake to achieve the goals and the deadlines for these goals. By doing this, you understand that there are small steps you need to take, but with each of the steps, you feel accomplished and motivated to continue the learning process. There is no standard plan working for everyone as it depends on the amount of time everyone has. However, setting a plan helps you keep track of your progress, makes you more aware of the processes you find difficult and keeps you organized. I used to create weekly plans in which I wrote the subjects I wanted to learn/improve. Depending on the subject, I created tasks that would help me understand and learn the subjects. For example, if I wanted to learn how to use the Dutch prepositions, I would make a list with the most common verbs and their prepositions, read it and then create essays in which I used the new knowledge. At the end of the week, I would revise my weekly plan, check my progress and decide which were the next subjects I needed to focus on.
Focus on more than vocabulary
Languages do contain words, but words without grammar fail to communicate. Although people usually hate grammar, when you are learning a language you need to accept that grammar — though difficult — is essential. Creating endless lists with words will teach you words, not a language. Understanding the basic structure of the language, the word order or conjugations will teach you how to use the words you have struggled to learn. And it is not as difficult as people think to learn basic grammar rules. Our minds are able to identify patterns and if the structures are similar to our native language, we understand the grammar rules of the new language quite easily. But even if they are not similar, through practice and repetition we create the neural connections that help us use the grammar rules without consciously thinking about them. As shown in a study on syntactic and lexical repetition, similarities to the structure of our native language are very helpful, but with enough practice, we can build new neural networks for new languages.
Use a diversity of exercises for practice
The more diverse the type of exercises are, the smaller the chances are you will get bored. But this is not the only reason why I recommend to use a diversity of exercises. By doing various types of exercises, you are involved in a continuous expansion of your language acquisition. From the boring fill in the correct phrase exercises to creating an essay using recently learned grammar structures, you are making the new neural connections stronger. The stronger they are, the easier our brain finds them when we want to communicate in that language.
Pretend you are explaining to someone what you have just learned
However strange it might be, this method has been highly effective whenever I tried to secure new information. If there were subjects I found difficult, I was trying to reformulate the knowledge and to restructure it as if trying to explain it to someone else. Surprisingly, I was creating my own formulas to find out the logic of what I was learning or to give sense to rules that seemed without logic.
Find a native
Theory is important but people rarely communicate thinking about the linguistic rules behind their utterances. In order to make communication efficient, people play with language, create expressions or make exceptions from the rules. The spoken language is different than what we hear on the official news on TV or from what we see in textbooks. In order to understand it, you need the help of a native. They have what I call a feeling of their language. Although they might not always be able to explain why they use a particular phrase in a certain context, they can offer you examples and counterexamples, giving you a different perspective. Whenever you have doubts about certain constructions, it is best to ask a native who will always be able to offer you his feeling of the language. But communicating with natives is also one of the best practices you can do once you have understood the basics of the language. If you are lucky to live in a big city, you can go to meetings with natives to practice the language. If you do not have a native with whom you can have face to face discussions, you can easily find online groups to connect to people. But whatever your options are, engaging in real conversations is one of the best methods to improve your language skills.
We all want things to happen fast and easy, but if you decided to learn a language you need to accept that it will take time, a lot of time, even to reach a beginner’s level. And if you really want to learn a language, embrace the fact that it will be a life long learning process. Because learning a language is not like learning any other skill. Languages are alive, changing and adapting, offering unique perspectives into new cultures and mentalities.
There are now eight years since I have started studying Dutch and even more since I have first been exposed to English, learning it slowly, through cartoons and weekly school lessons. Am I a native? No. Do I continue to make mistakes? Yes. With both languages, I understand that reaching perfection is nearly impossible. But most importantly, I have realized that there is no deadline. My goal is continuous improvement. If you want to learn a language efficiently you need to understand that there is no destination you need to reach. It is all about that journey, the small signs of progress and the constant contact with the language. And your best buddies on this journey will be patience and passion.
- A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers by Joshua K. Harthstorne, Joshua Tenebraum and Steven Pinker
- Language learning in the adult brain: disrupting the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex facilitates word-form learning by Eleonore H.M. Smalle, Muriel Panouilleres, Arnaud Szmalec and Riikka Möttönen
- Cultural learners’ in the cradle by International School of Advanced Studies
- The Impact of Instruction and Out‐of‐School Exposure to Foreign Language Input on Learners’ Vocabulary Knowledge in Two Languages by Elke Peters, Ann‐Sophie Noreillie, Kris Heylen, Bram Bulté and Piet Desmet
- fMRI Syntactic and Lexical Repetition Effects Reveal the Initial Stages of Learning a New Language by Kirsten Weber, Morten H. Christiansen, Karl Magnus Petersson, Peter Indefrey and Peter Hagoort