Whether for personal or business reasons, learning other languages can be intimidating, especially if it is a brand new experience for you. Many people believe that learning another language for most adults is exceedingly more difficult than doing so as a child. This is commonly perpetuated in the popular media, but in reality it is more myth than truth. In this article, we will explore language learning and provide you strategies most effective for adults to leap into learning languages and experience great success.

Wired for language

Regardless of the specific language, the human brain is highly attuned to language in general. After all, using language is unquestionably the single most striking capability we possess that makes us “human”. You may be interested to know that all infants are so hard-wired for this that they can discriminate among and make all the sounds of all the 6500 languages in the world! This is why no matter where we were born on the planet we were able to become fluent in our native language, with absolutely no trouble.

This happens because within just a few months of birth, infants begin to sort out which sounds they hear on a daily basis and they put their cognitive resources towards these(1). As they grow older and then become adults, this becomes even more pronounced. This is relevant because it ties into the fact that when you learn another language as an adult, you are still using this same foundational capacity and the same language areas of the brain as you did when you learned your native language(2).

The brain and learning a new language

That said, some adults do have an easier time than others learning a second language and researchers have begun to uncover why. The brain has many areas devoted to language that are interconnected to comprise a language network. Neuroimaging reveals that differences in an individual’s functional connectivity within this language network predict differences in their ability to acquire a new language as adults(2). Those with more connectivity have an easier time of it.

However, even as adults our brains retain “plasticity”, which is the ability for the brain to change throughout the lifespan, be it physically or in its functionality. Plasticity allows us to continue to learn throughout our entire lives. When it comes to learning another language, researchers have been able to see through neuroimaging that doing so can actually change the brain. Areas related to foreign language learning have been found to increase in size, these include the hippocampus—which is a primary structure responsible for memory, and cortical thickness—which is where more grey matter responsible for sensory perception and speech resides(3).

There is a bit of a catch…the amount of growth depends on the amount of effort. This is good news though because effort is under your control! Let’s now take a look at some of the most effective strategies for adults.  

Fast-track your language learning

As adults, most of us are not in a position to devote years to formal classes. This being the case means that researchers have evaluated a variety of strategies and techniques that are more suited to shorter-term efforts.

Letting go of what you know

One of the biggest obstacles is actually your mental attitude. If you have convinced yourself learning another language will be difficult, it will be harder for you than if you embrace the knowledge that as a human being you have a natural capacity to learn any language.

One of the places adult learners struggle and become intimidated is in the sounds that are different in languages other than their native language. For native English speakers, examples are the rolling “r” in Spanish or the “fu” in Japanese. Because our brains are in essence ‘biased’ toward the sounds of our native language, fairly intensive short-term training that focuses on such differences through acoustic cues has been found to be very effective(4). By concentrating on these smaller sounds spoken correctly, you will be able to begin to hear the differences and then with practice recreate them.

Using your senses

You have probably heard, and perhaps used, strategies for remembering information. One of the most common that is recommended is to think of an image associated with someone’s name. If you meet someone named Savannah, you might think of a large, grass-covered plain. If you meet someone named Roy, you may think of an image of a boy (this has the added benefit of rhyming!).

For learning foreign language vocabulary, researchers have found that using the senses can make a big difference for being able to recall words(5). If you are trying to learn the word “apple” in French, which is “pomme”, visualizing an apple, making a gesture of drawing an apple in the air or on paper, making a gesture of eating an imaginary or a real apple, and so on will give your brain many points of entry for the information and help connect and therefore solidify the learning.

Practice makes perfect

As stated earlier, research definitively shows that learners who expend more effort (such as concentration, focus, distributed but regular practice) learn another language the fastest and the most effectively(3). In addition to this, getting exposure in a number of different ways and participating actively, from formal learning through a class, Apps, tapes/CDs to more informal methods, such as subtitles that match the language of a film or other media, or immersion by spending time among native speakers of the language you are learning, will give your brain ample experience with the language.

Closing Thoughts

Learning another language has a large number of benefits. Not only can it improve the quality of daily life, it can improve the quality of your brain! Hopefully, now that you know more you can leap into language learning, not with blind faith, but with confidence.

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1. Kuhl, P. K., Stevens, E., Hayashi, A., Deguchi, T., Kiritani, S., & Iverson, P. (2006). Fast-track report: Infants show a facilitation effect for native language phonetic perception between 6 and 12 months. Developmental Science, 9(2), F13-F21.

2. Chai, X. J., Berken, J. A., Barbeau, E. B., Soles, J., Callahan, M., Chen, J. K., & Klein, D. (2016). Intrinsic functional connectivity in the adult brain and success in second-language learningThe Journal of Neuroscience36(3), 755-761.

3. Mårtensson, J., Eriksson, J., Bodammer, N. C., Lindgren, M., & Johansson, M. (2012). Growth of language-related brain areas after foreign language learningNeuroImage63, 240-244.

4. Iverson, P., Hazan, V., & Bannister, K. (2005). Phonetic training with acoustic cue manipulations: A comparison of methods for teaching English/r/-/l/to Japanese adults. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 118(5), 3267-3278.

5. Mayer, K. M., Yildiz, I. B., Macedonia, M., & von Kriegstein, K. (2015). Visual and motor cortices differentially support the translation of foreign language words. Current Biology, 25(4), 530-535.

About the Author:

Lilla Dale McManis, MEd, PhD, is an educational psychologist who specializes in learning and cognition. She uses her training and experience to promote optimal outcomes through translating research into meaningful practice.