One of the biggest hurdles to learning a language as an adult is our fear of looking foolish in front of others. We have the ability to share our thoughts and ideas in our native language but when we begin to learn another language, we are reduced to a state of linguistic helplessness. Even a simple sentence is beyond our grasp at the beginning, and as adults, this kind of vulnerability is very uncomfortable, to say the least. However, it is incredibly important for us to be able to overcome this fear because all the research and understanding of language learning over the centuries has shown that interacting with others, and especially with native or proficient speakers is essential to learning a language in the most efficient manner. Without these interactions, language learning is slower, less accurate, more temporary, and results in a less fluent learning of the desired language.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.

Nelson Mendela

 

It is also very important to make sure that you are engaging your brain through all four language modalities: hearing, speaking, reading, and listening. A recent study suggests that learning under immersive conditions may be more effective for language learning than typical classroom training. In other words, for adults, language training requires more active learning, which engages all the senses and not just listening or reading. Our brains learn by making connections between and among areas of the brain. The more connections that an area has, the better the brain accesses it. So, if you are only listening to a language, you are depriving your brain of all the connections that it would form if you were also speaking, reading, and writing that language too! Our brains also strengthen those connections every time we are exposed to a word or sentence in the language. That’s why it’s important to get feedback and corrections when you are using the language; so that what you are hearing, saying, writing, and reading is correct. Otherwise, you might be reinforcing your errors, making them more difficult to correct later.

 

The key to being able to get all these benefits is to find a setting in which you feel comfortable doing interactive activities: having conversations, and using language to DO things, making errors, and getting feedback to improve. Using your new language in the real world can be nerve-wracking, which can seriously reduce your ability to use your new-found linguistic skills. But an environment where you have a mentor who you trust to push you, but not discourage you, who gives you an opportunity to speak and interact in real-life situations that will reinforce those positive, language-building connections, and who will provide activities to practice that language using speaking, listening, reading and writing, is the kind of language learning scenario that will ensure you learn the language in a way that establishes it in your heart, mind, and brain, for the rest of your life.