6 Ways Learning A Language As An Adult Is Different Than Learning It In School

Don’t let memories of the dreaded conjugation tables hold you back. Learning a language as an adult might actually be easier — and more fun — than you think.
two women studying notes together learning a language as an adult

Learning a language as an adult means you’re starting out with a built-in disadvantage. If you’ve graduated elementary school, you’ve pretty much already peaked as a language learner, right?

Actually, you might be better off in a number of ways. Despite the conventional wisdom about adult language learning, a good deal of contemporary researchers are challenging the notion that children are naturally better at picking up new languages. And that’s to say nothing about the context, motivation and available technology that can come to your aid as an adult learner.

It’s the internet age, and we’re not in Señora Smith’s Spanish II class anymore. Here are a few differences you can expect to encounter between K-12 language education and self-directed study. As it so happens, the odds are ever in your favor.

How Learning A Language As An Adult Is Just…Different

1. Believe it or not, you might have a cognitive advantage.

For a long time, the prevailing consensus on language learning was that language acquisition ability is intrinsically tied to brain development stages.

Psycholinguist Eric Lenneberg’s Critical Period Hypothesis argued that a “critical period” exists for language learning, and that such ability naturally drops off after puberty due to the completion of lateralization, which is when language skills become fully localized in the brain’s left hemisphere.

However, many modern researchers are positing a different hypothesis. Trinity College professor David Singleton frequently criticizes the Critical Period Hypothesis, arguing that there is no substantial evidence to suggest that such a “critical period” exists.

Recent studies have found that adults may actually outperform children in terms of how quickly they pick up new languages (think about it — children spend years mastering simple vocabulary and syntax before they can produce anything complex or intelligible). Additionally, adults already have an understanding of grammar that is more easily transferred to grammatically correct speech in other languages. The one area where children maintain an advantage is pronunciation, but that has little bearing on actual fluency.

2. You’re actually interested in what you’re learning this time.

This might be a presumptuous thing to say. Maybe you were really motivated to learn French in fourth grade! But there’s a difference between learning something because you have to and learning something because you want to.

This sounds fairly self-evident, but it’s worth mentioning that there’s research to support this. A 1968 study published in the journal Psychonomic Science found that motivation had a measurable effect on long-term memory recall, as long as the test subjects were motivated prior to or during the actual learning of the information.

It seems safe to assume that if you’re learning a language as an adult, the motivation already lies within.

3. You probably already have a foundation to draw from.

If you’re like most people who grew up in the United States, you probably have at least a year or two of Spanish or French under your belt. You might think you’ve forgotten everything you learned in middle school, but you know what they say about riding bikes.

Indeed, the repetitive learning of classroom settings is often successful at lodging information in your long-term memory, and you might be surprised by how easily a lot of it comes back once you start engaging with the language again.

And even if you choose to study an entirely different language, your language-learning capacity is a dormant muscle that can easily be reactivated with the right kind of app or software.

4. You can focus on what you want — and need — to know.

Maybe it’s good in theory if “I like bears” can easily roll off your tongue, but let’s be real. Most of us would rather learn how to flirt, curse, or order our favorite drink first.

In this way, learning a language as an adult can actually be a lot more like the “native learning” that children experience. You can bypass the stiff, overly theoretical sentence construction if you want to, and you can prioritize your learning on a need-to-know basis. Not only are you more likely to speak like a real local — you’re also more likely to feel confident about striking up a conversation with one.

5. Learning happens on your own time.

Maybe it’s harder to find the time to learn a new language when it’s not already built into your schedule, but with great freedom comes great responsibility. You’re a lot more likely to enjoy something that happens on your own terms, anyway.

Self-directed study differs from classroom learning in another very important sense: there’s no adult around to call the shots and make sure you’re doing your homework. Some people might flounder without this structure, but this just gives you more reason to build it into your schedule (and in a way that’s convenient for you).

Fortunately, though, modern technology makes it possible to simultaneously take your learning into your own hands, as well as benefit from an organized information delivery system. Which brings us to our last point.

6. App-based learning has changed the game entirely.

With apps like Babbel, you can learn languages on the go (during your morning commute, even).

In addition to being convenient, Babbel is also backed by technology designed for real people, as well as lessons that were developed by professional linguists. You choose where and when you want to learn. Babbel then delivers the information to you in a way that gels with cognitive science to ensure you retain what you learn and, more importantly, feel comfortable having a conversation in no time.

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