Why Adults Learning a New Language Have the Edge
Many people believe that children have an advantage in language learning because their developmental stages support it.
But would you believe me if I said adults actually have the edge when it comes to learning a new language?
In fact, you already know multiple “second” languages – how to speak to your boss vs. speaking to your kids, or professional terminology for your job that others outside the industry don’t know.
In this sense, you’re always learning “new” languages!
Today I’ll break down the differences between learning as a child vs. as an adult, and why as an adult you’re much closer to achieving fluency than you might think.
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The Disadvantages of Childhood Language Learning
Most people assume that children have the upper hand in language development – it seems like they can automatically pick up new languages, without any hard work! However, there are several disadvantages of childhood language learning.
1. Lack of Control Over Learning
Children typically learn a language as part of their natural environment, which can leave gaps in their language skills if they aren’t exposed to comprehensive instruction or different contexts.
For example, a child might hear some word or phrase when they are two years old, yet not really understand what it means. Then, many years later, they hear the word again in some other context and finally get the meaning, which allows them to feel confident using it.
Think of a word like “bicycle.” A child just learns that “bicycle” refers to some physical object they can ride. But as they get older, they learn that “bi” can mean “two,” and that “cycle” can mean “wheel.” These deeper connections with words can come quickly, if parents are thoughtful about teaching their children. But, often, language education isn’t this systematic. So children can go years without really understanding things, while adult learners can control their own learning by getting examples as quickly as possible.
Furthermore, children rely on adults, such as parents and teachers, and formal educational systems like nursery school and elementary school, as part of their learning process. It’s difficult for a child to get more information about vocabulary, even if they want to. So children have fewer opportunities for exploring language deeply, and understanding how to use English phrases in a way that adults can.
2. Cognitive Development
While children’s brains are incredibly adaptable, they’re still in the early learning stages of cognitive development. They need “language nutrition” for optimal learning and development.
Complex grammar structures and abstract language concepts are complicated for many people, and children are no exception. Their ability to grasp these concepts is limited, and it can make learning a new language very challenging.
But adult learners have the ability to understand more complex concepts, so their progress can be much faster.
3. Limited Exposure
Children don’t often travel to different areas or environments on their own to learn. They’re typically limited to school or family settings, which can restrict their exposure to contexts, different dialects, or regional accents.
Adult learners, on the other hand, are free to get the varied review they need to build fluency, and explore things as they like. If you want to learn about a topic, you can simply go to YouTube and learn about it from many different videos.
Not only does this limitation narrow the exposure of children to essential input for developing fluency, but it also delays their path to fluency.
Advantages of Being an Adult Language Learner
As adults, we have unique advantages that make us incredibly effective language learners. Here are a few.
1. Prior Knowledge and Cognitive Abilities
As adults, we approach learning a new language with a wealth of prior knowledge and cognitive abilities that we’ve developed over time.
We can draw on our understanding of our native language and apply that foundation as a way to learn a new language. Having been exposed to years of various contexts, we understand how to make connections that help us gain fluency in English.
Our autonomy and multilingual abilities help us to understand many complex concepts – such as words with multiple meanings. This debunks the myth that you can’t learn a language in adulthood!
And remember, you continue to learn new things all the time in your native language. You simply need to learn English the same way, with a variety of native examples.
2. Control Over Education
As adults, we have control over our learning habits and paths. We can choose where and how we would like to learn.
Traditional language learning methods tell us that sitting in a classroom, memorizing lists of words and their definitions is the way to go. But that won’t get us to true fluency – there are other, better, options!
We can enroll in language courses like Fluent For Life, use language learning apps like Frederick, or learn how to think in English by leveraging Naturally Varied Review. These tools and strategies work because they teach you English as a FIRST language, the way you learned your native language. Yet they are more systematic, which helps you get fluent faster.
3. Multilingual Abilities
Adults are often fluent in multiple “second languages,” which is a significant advantage when learning a language as an adult. I touched on it briefly at the beginning of this article, but it’s worth discussing in more detail.
These different types of languages range from professional jargon, to varying communication styles adapted to different settings. Examples of this are like how you speak casually with your friends vs. how you’d speak in a professional meeting. This ability to switch between “languages” fluidly is a testament to our capability to learn and master MULTIPLE new languages effectively.
Having this experience makes it easier for us to recognize patterns and draw connections, which develops the depth of knowledge necessary for confident, fluent communication.
Becoming Fluent in English as an Adult
We’ve talked briefly about the advantages of being an adult language learner, and that no age is too old to learn a new language. Let’s cover the methods that foster lifelong fluency, and strategies that we can use to get there.
1. The Power of Systematic Immersion
One of the keys to language fluency as an adult is the power of systematic immersion. It’s really the most important tool in our language learning toolbox.
Immersing yourself in English-speaking environments and media can expose you to many accents and contexts, which is what I call Naturally Varied Review. But the point is you do it systematically, getting input that helps you understand vocabulary and grammar as quickly as possible.
It’s important to know the difference between immersion and systematic immersion because just being around native speech doesn’t get you fluent. Millions of non-native English learners live in English-speaking countries and never become fluent speakers. So, the “missing ingredient” is the systematic input that helps them understand things as quickly as possible.
One example of this is hearing many people speak about the same or similar things, which can help you process language patterns – without having to speak before you’re ready to – AND can help you learn faster!
However, it’s important to note that you DON’T have to move to an English-speaking country or take an English immersion course to get systematic immersion. In fact, many people do these things and never become fluent speakers!
Instead, Fluent For Life (which guarantees English fluency) is even better than immersion because you’ll be learning in English (like immersion), and yet systematically build your understanding and confidence (the keys to speaking fluently).
2. Practice without Boring Repetition
I’ve explained Naturally Varied Review already, but since this is so essential to developing fluency, it’s helpful to explain it further.
Repetition is a helpful way to learn. But it limits our ability to truly understand what we learn. Like the “bicycle” example I gave earlier, simply repeating the word “bicycle” might help you improve your listening or pronunciation slightly, but this repetition doesn’t give you deeper understanding.
Instead, hearing related words, like “bifurcate,” which means to cut something in two, and “bilingual,” meaning a speaker of two languages, gives you the deeper understanding of the prefix “bi,” and makes you feel a lot more confident about speaking.
So, as an adult, Naturally Varied Review gives us the opportunity to reinforce our language skills, and remember new vocabulary and grammar using context as points of reference. Here’s one way that you can apply this concept by yourself.
Consider a scenario you encounter daily – perhaps it’s a morning trip to your favorite coffee shop.
Each day, the barista greets you and asks, “How are you today?” To which you respond, “I’m great, thank you.” How else might you respond?
Make a list of responses you could use instead of your typical reply.
Here’s what you could say:
- “I’m great because the weather is so nice!”
- “I wish it wasn’t so cold outside, but otherwise, I’m doing well. Thanks for asking.”
- “You’re very kind for asking. I’m great! How are you?”
Paying attention to how other people order when you go to a cafe will also increase your vocabulary, understanding, confidence and fluency!
Now that you’ve considered all the different ways you could respond, you can practice them alone until you feel ready to speak them out loud. This approach will help you learn how to speak English fluently, even though it’s likely the opposite of what you’ve been taught.
3. Embracing a Child-Like Curiosity
We may have more life experiences, and a cognitive advantage, but there is one thing that children often excel at more than adults – being curious.Children ask questions, make mistakes, and approach the world with a sense of wonder and exploration.
The good news is you can easily adopt a child’s approach to life and learning! This child-like curiosity can make learning a language as an adult enjoyable, which can accelerate your path to fluency!
As an adult, you can bring curiosity to your English journey by learning about things that interest you in English, or using apps like Frederick to discover new words and meanings, all by yourself.
Fast Track Your Fluency: Get Fluent For Life
Children seem to have a head start when it comes to language learning, but as we’ve discussed, adults have multiple tools to achieve English fluency.
Adults have many advantages – like life experience, education, and foundational knowledge – that can add up to success in language learning.
And when you add to this the systematic immersion of learning English as a FIRST language, you can increase your fluency and speak confidently, FAST!
That’s why I created Fluent For Life – to help intermediate to advanced English learners achieve their English language dreams. It’s the only course that teaches English as a FIRST language, and guarantees fluency.