Kids are great language learners, no question.
You drop ‘em down in a foreign country, and the adults around them just enviously watch as they soak in their new linguistic environment. Before you know it, those kids are throwing around complex grammatical patterns that adults just can’t seem to wrap their heads around.
It’s sobering, isn’t it?
Except this isn’t how it happens at all.
In fact, kids are pressured to learn languages well, too—the adults around them have unyielding expectations, and their peers certainly won’t let mistakes creep in unnoticed (lest we forget the cruelty of the grade school social hierarchy). Plus, they need to communicate to have their basic needs and wants met, as they’re dependent on adults to provide for them.
Adults have the privilege of acting without these pressures, and that’s incredibly freeing. The only reason why adults seem to struggle is—wait for it—the learning methods they choose. Once adults learn to harness their adult human abilities, they run circles around children when it comes to language acquisition.
Still don’t believe me? Here are three reasons why adults are way better language learners than kids!
3 Reasons Why Adults Are Superior Language Learners
1. Adults already know at least one language
Adults don’t realize that they have a wealth of independent language knowledge that they can tap into. Children are facing the world for the first time—they have to parse through thousands of new concepts along with new vocabulary.
Children learn their first language in a vacuum, and that’s not very efficient.
Luckily, this isn’t the case for adult learners! Adults are familiar with abstract concepts and advanced vocabulary in their native languages. Adults have some measure of education, and have tens of thousands of hours of experience communicating with people and solving problems. They already know how to buckle down and study, how to discover the best language learning strategies and how to track down all the resources they need. And that’s where the advantage lies!
You can find resources you love because you have access to the world. The ability to find and use native resources to learn a second language is only possible because you know a first language and because you’re familiar with concepts kids hardly understand.
You can milk this for all it’s worth when you take advantage of native resources like movies, TV and music. If you’re learning a language related to your native language, you can take advantage of cognates and related grammatical concepts in ways kids just can’t.
Even if you’re learning a completely unrelated language, you can leverage your adult knowledge of human nature while watching TV and movies. The visuals provide the context you need, and you can guess at the meaning of the language involved.
2. Adults can read
This skill is totally underestimated when adults evaluate their language learning skills compared to kids. You might be thinking, “sure, I can read, but memorizing all those grammar tables sure didn’t do me any good in school.”
How about this—notice how toddlers need a huge number of repetitions to remember new words, phrases and grammar? We tend to gloss over these toddler mistakes in our minds. They’re kids, and they’re just talking like kids! Nevertheless, the way toddlers learn, through audio input and body language alone, is woefully inefficient. Grade school lessons on how to read and write can’t come fast enough. Once they make those leaps in skill development, they start learning much more about the world around them.
Reading, on the other hand, allows us to get those repetitions in relatively quickly and painlessly. Meanwhile, the littlest learners can’t just pick up a book or a pen and get to practicing.
Sure, textbooks and grammar reference books are one way to leverage this ability to read, but I recommend homemade flashcards and word lists, especially if you’re a visual learner. Writing down a word when you learn it cements it better in your mind.
The best way to take advantage of your literacy skills is with a Spaced Repetition System (SRS). SRS is a programmed system that uses an algorithm based on human memory and how quickly individuals forget items they wish to learn. One way to use this is to create flashcards with foreign words or sentences on the front, and translations on the back in your native tongue—or even a definition written out in the foreign language. If you test poorly on the card, the program gives it back to you immediately. If you think the card’s easy and nail the correct answer right away each time, the card comes back in increasingly longer periods of time as you do your repetitions.
FluentU uses a one-of-a-kind SRS.
There are other independent flashcard resources like the well-known Anki program, so you can try out different programs and see what you like! As for content, choose words that are exciting and essential to you.
If you’re feeling very adventurous, the All Japanese All The Time immersion method has learners entering whole sentences into flashcards. With all the repetition you’re going to get, you end up learning grammar alongside vocab items. Cool!
Finally, trusty old vocab lists are a tried and true method of mine. It’s as simple as choosing specialized vocabulary that you want to learn, preferably in a certain field or family of words. I use Fluent Forever author Gabriel Wymer’s method of listmaking—creating a basic word bank of several hundred words. FluentU has everything you need to create your own thematic, neatly-organized word lists and study them using the SRS, so you can jump right into this method whenever you want!
3. Adults have the ability to learn how to learn
This is probably the most important point here. Think about it: Kids generally have no control over their lives or the way they learn, whether in school or otherwise.
Kids learning a second language through immersion also don’t get much choice in the matter. They move to the countries their parents pick and go to the schools their parents send them to. They succeed, sure, but there’s a lot of unnecessary anxiety and pressure that I’m sure you really don’t want to deal with.
And you don’t have to! You have control over how you learn, and more importantly, you can choose to learn how you want to learn. Keeping up the fun improves your motivation and attitude, and that helps you learn faster and retain more than an unmotivated kid ever could.
For example, native Japanese students living in Japan learn the 2042 jouyou kanji (essential Japanese characters) all the way through high school. That’s about 12 long years of formal instruction and memorizing characters. It’s no wonder the Japanese writing system has such a strong reputation for being difficult to learn. But these native students are mainly using rote memorization—or at the very least they’re at the whim of their teacher’s teaching and learning strategies—which isn’t always the best way to learn things for every individual.
If you’re a Japanese learner and feel so inclined, you can purchase Heisig’s “Remembering the Kanji,” and store those characters away in a fraction of the time it takes for a Japanese kid. James Heisig invented an innovative way to memorize kanji that’s great for almost anyone learning as an adult. He uses mnemonic devices and fanciful stories to help you remember each portion of each character. I’ve used the method myself—soon you end up seeing pictures and stories instead of incomprehensible squiggles, and voilá, memorization! You don’t have to be a genius, you don’t have to have talent. You’ve just got to recognize that you’re an adult who can recognize a better way of doing things when you see one!
This same principle works well for learning any language. It all comes down to curiosity, control and figuring out when something isn’t working. Don’t like the textbook you have? Try a new one! Don’t like using that deck of flashcards, or don’t think it’s working for you? Experiment with word lists or media-based immersion!
For a bridge between learner-oriented and authentic media immersion, check out polyglot Olly Richards’ Grammar Hero (all about the building blocks), Conversations (for fast fluency) or the Uncovered courses (targeting specific languages including Spanish, French, German and Italian.)
You can also keep yourself motivated and accountable with your adult sense of self-awareness. You know you’ll need deadlines to make big strides in learning and measure your overall progress, so set goals for yourself.
Long-term goals, or where you want to be in several months or a year, are great for keeping your eye on the prize. Short-term goals, like daily or weekly tasks, help you concentrate on the little habits that will get you where you want to be. For example, when I was learning Spanish, I set a one year goal to be able to read mainstream novels and understand radio in Spanish. And then I committed to doing SRS reps and listening to Spanish podcasts for set amounts of time each day.
Work on your productivity skills with time-boxing, yet another learnable way to conquer procrastination and achieve huge goals. Time-boxing was first popular in tech fields, but it’s a time management technique proven to get people moving on big projects again and again. Basically, it’s breaking down your big task into manageable bites using timers to create time-boxes.
Let’s say you want to work on some textbook lessons, but you’re having a hard time getting yourself moving. Well, set a 20-minute timer, and decide to stick with that time period no matter what! At the very least, you’ll get 20 minutes of work done. However, a likely outcome is that, once the ball is rolling, you’ll be engrossed with your studies and keep moving for some time even after the timer has run out. After you complete one time-box, reset the timer and try for another one after a small break.
You can do this with listening to radio, watching portions of a movie or reading material in your target language. You’re turning an unfathomable project into a game that you can win! And if 20 or 30 minutes still seems daunting, you might try even shorter time-boxes—10 minutes, 5 minutes or even 1 minute. Anything to get trick your brain into thinking the task isn’t really that big.
All of this fine-tuned organization, planning, goal-setting and method selection simply can’t be matched by children. This is something that you have the power to do because you’re an adult. Three cheers for being a grown up!
Kids might thrive in their controlled environments, but adults have the advantage of freedom over their own lives. They have life experience and prior knowledge. With freedom and curiosity, they can leverage this experience and knowledge to achieve goals kids can’t even fathom.
So don’t beat yourself up for not having learned a second language when you were in diapers.
You’re never too old!
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