How To Learn A Language At Any Age

Our language expert Fidi explains how to learn a new language effectively — even if it’s been a few years since you were last in school.
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Think you peaked in your language-learning abilities back in preschool? Think again. It’s a stubborn myth that children are naturally better at picking up new languages, and one that’s not necessarily supported by science. The idea that there’s a “critical period” for language learning that ends after puberty is one that’s often criticized by researchers like Trinity College professor David Singleton, who argues that there is no substantial evidence to support this. Long story short: you’re never too old to learn.

Children do have an advantage with one thing: nailing pronunciation like a native. In just about every other area, however, older learners actually have an advantage compared to kids (like a more extensive knowledge of language and of the world, which they can reference to learn more efficiently). Studies suggest that adults can actually pick up new languages faster than children — and that’s not even touching on the fact that adult learners are more motivated and self-directed.

We talked to Fidi, one of our in-house language experts who studied international communication and translation in Spain, completed language teaching research in Hamburg, and worked as a translator in Turkey. Here’s her advice on how to take advantage of your age and your experience to make the most of your language learning, and why Babbel can help you start speaking a new language faster than you think.

1. Your age is actually an advantage.

Unlike younger learners, you’ll find it easier to understand explanations and apply rules thanks to your more mature cognitive abilities. When you learn a language as an adult, you understand new language rules more quickly and can compare them to your native language or to another foreign language, transfering what you already know and learning from it. Thanks to your life experience, says Fidi, you’re also better-equipped to know what’s appropriate to say in different situations. When you’re talking to a cashier at the supermarket, you know what questions to expect (if you need a bag, the total amount to pay, etc.) and what to say to achieve a specific goal. In linguistics, this is called pragmatics. Successful communication requires more than just vocabulary and grammar. That’s a big part of why Babbel’s lessons are crafted around realistic, common situations you’ll encounter in the real world.

2. Don’t expect to progress at the same rate in every language.

When you’re learning a language as an adult, your progress can depend on the language you’ve chosen. If it’s related to your native language (like German is to English), you’ll find more parallels in the vocabulary and sentence structure, which means there are some things that you won’t have to learn from scratch. Languages that are more distant from your native language, for example a language with another alphabet (like Russian) or a different grammar (like Turkish) can be difficult at first and give you a slow start. But once you’ve overcome these initial challenges, the sense of accomplishment and success feels even greater, and you’ll quickly increase your pace.

3. Babbel’s lessons are built for learners of all types.

never too old to learn - Babbel
What’s the best way to go about learning a new language? The only person who can determine that is you. For example, are you more focused and able to concentrate in the morning or in the evening? Are you a visual learner who benefits from connecting new vocabulary with images? Maybe it’s not enough for you to hear or see new words, but rather you remember them best when you write them down in a notebook. These questions might seem trivial at first, but you should be aware of what learning strategies have worked for you before and integrate them into your learning process, says our language expert Fidi. If you’re not sure, then try to use as many physical senses as you can when you’re learning (seeing, listening, writing, and so on). Babbel’s lessons are actually already set up to provide this multisensory learning experience, featuring visual cue cards, audio recordings, speaking prompts and fill-in-the-blank writing exercises.

4. Babbel works with your brain, not against it.

Language learning slows down memory loss and cognitive decline — another reason to start learning a language, even when you’re older. It keeps you mentally fit! Bear in mind, however, that language learning is never easy and always requires hard work, even for young learners. That’s why it’s especially important to learn in small bits with breaks in between, and to include frequent repetition. That’s the only way to solidify what you’ve learned in your long-term memory, and that’s a central component of Babbel’s spaced repetition learning formula. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Instead, give yourself time for reading, writing and understanding by dividing up bigger tasks into smaller sub-tasks. Listen to text at a speed and volume that work for you. Increase the font size on your digital devices, and adjust the brightness and the contrast. Use pictures and other learning techniques for support. Mnemonic devices are a very effective method to retain what you’ve learned, but they only reach your long-term memory through regular repetition.

5. As an adult learner, you’re probably more motivated.

never too old to learn - Babbel
Your motivation for learning a language is a determining factor for your success. Why are you learning this language? For personal or family reasons? For your job? Because you’re fascinated by a country and its culture? Or to stay mentally fit? Whatever reason you have, keep it in mind. Once you’ve determined why you want to learn a language, set small, attainable goals for yourself. Maybe you want to order a ca­fé au lait in French on your next vacation or watch a foreign TV show in the original language. You can approach what you learn selectively and focus on what brings you closer to your goal.

6. You get to choose how you keep it up.

It’s not easy to stay motivated for a long period of time because you’ll inevitably encounter a plateau or challenging phase. That’s why it’s all the more important to integrate language learning into your everyday life and combine it with activities that you find fun, like books, movies, cooking, traveling, sports, music or socializing. You can also try out a variety of methods, like video tutorials, podcasts, language-learning apps or language meetups. You can find lots of options on the internet, and it doesn’t always have to be traditional language courses in a classroom. Babbel’s lessons are geared toward people with busy lives, but anyone can benefit from an app that helps you learn in one manageable, 10 to 15 minute lesson per day. According to Fidi, the main thing is that you don’t do too much or you’ll be overwhelmed. It’s better to do a little bit, but every day!

7. Learn to stop worrying and love your accent.

Some things are difficult to learn even when you’re young — for example, speaking without an accent. According to the theory of the critical phase in language acquisition (first introduced by Penfield and Roberts in 1959), there’s a biological window of time that’s optimal for reaching a native speaker’s language level, which ends between the ages of 6 and 9 (some say with the beginning of puberty). After that, it’s increasingly unlikely to sound like a native speaker. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a language well enough to understand and be understood (aka achieve fluency), and foreign accents often come across as cute or charming to native speakers. Plus, if you really apply yourself, it’s not impossible to sound like a native speaker with focused exercises. And as they say, the exception proves the rule!

8. Learn to stop worrying and love your mistakes.

The older you get, the more critical you become of yourself. Your tolerance for making mistakes might decrease, or you might feel inhibited or embarrassed to try out what you’ve learned. But mistakes are a fundamental part of the learning process, according to Fidi. Depending on your personality — extroverted and ready to try out new things or introverted and perfectionist — you should find a place where you feel comfortable speaking, asking questions and letting yourself make mistakes. That can be in a group or by yourself with an app, with native speakers or with another learner. Be okay with “good” versus striving for “great,” and you’ll soon exceed your own expectations.

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