You know how sometimes an incorrect belief gets around to becoming conventional wisdom? Like the world being flat, or you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? There’s another one to add to the list. Adults aren’t able to learn foreign languages. Neither practical evidence nor research support that way of thinking. You may be 29 years old or 79 years old, and it just doesn’t matter. Do you want to learn Spanish as an adult? You can learn much faster than you learned English as a child. Essentially, there are two things you need to do, but the last one I’ll mention is more helpful than the first.
Katherine Sprang, Ph.D, Second Language Acquisition expert, says “in some ways adults have an advantage over children.” She explains that adults can use knowledge of English to organize the different elements of a foreign language. For example, in Spanish this is a big help, because most of the sounds are the same as in English. There are a few exceptions, like the rr sound with a tongue roll as in the word ‘burrito’, or the nya sound like in ‘señor’. But, since we already are familiar with the other sounds made in the Spanish alphabet, we can give priority to learning those new sounds. We don’t have to learn them all from scratch. Another help is spotting words that look similar in both languages. Examples of these would be words like actividad, celebrar, and televisión. You already know their counterpart in English, so you don’t have to work hard to relearn them in Spanish. By noticing the difference, you speed up the learning curve of understanding the vocabulary and patterns. But, this is really just learning ABOUT a language. It’s like what a typical public school or college Spanish class does. Do you become FLUENT in speaking a language this way? No! The truth is, the more you focus on this early in your study, the more it hinders your ability to speak in the target language without having to figure out how to conjugate and pre-think your grammar.
There’s another important side to learning languages that must be practiced to truly acquire (internalize) a second language as an adult. It may be easier or harder for you, depending on your personality type. Relax. Take a deep breath. No, really, that’s it. “When the mind is relaxed and not seeking explanations or patterns”, says Sprang, “it’s capable of categorizing and sorting out information about some elements of language without conscious effort.” One thing that can help is finding a language friend online through an online language exchange service. This gives you the chance to be both learner and teacher with someone else who wants to learn your native language. This is a great way to practice your language safely. You can talk about things that truly interest you, and share your culture with someone who is in another country right now. All you need is a broadband connection and Skype. As long as you understand what your conversation partner is saying, or at least the gist of their words, you are becoming a little more fluent with each conversation.
The alpha version of my Spanish e-learning program gives you focused listening and reading practice to improve your fluency. Fluency comes from listening, not from speaking. Be consistent in your practice with the yet-to-be-named Learn Spanish Naturally product. Watch it a few times, and remember to breathe deeply and relax. Whether you feel like an old dog or a young pup, you can learn Spanish.
Mark Mayo has an M.A. in Instructional Design for Second Language Education. He has lived in South America in the past, but currently resides in Northern California with his family (and dachshunds).