Language learning for adults and how to make it work
Almost all the adults I know think learning a new language in adulthood is impossible. A new foreign language can be difficult to learn, and linguists agree. Here are some tips to stay motivated.
They came to the United States at the same time, in the crucial years around puberty. Walter’s advantage, Pinker surmises, was being a few years younger than his brother when they moved. This allowed him to absorb more English and kick his accent. (According to Pinker, the accent is as much a part of the language instinct as is grammar.)
Language is like jazz: both are spontaneous compositions derived from a finite set of elements (notes or words). But the jazz analogy may compel people to think that they simply don’t have the talent. What they don’t realise is how obsessively John Coltrane practiced, repeating scales and arpeggios over and over again to build up the skills he would need to make that freeform composition on the stage seem so effortless.
Repeat, repeat, repeat. You will then feel a thrill as you proceed to compound sentences, tenses, and modal verbs (should, would, must, may). “I am going to work, because I have to. I live in New York, and I love it here.” Those steps beyond baby talk are exciting.
Attending a class is the single best way to motivate yourself—the desire to impress a teacher and classmates will help keep you on task. If you have the means to get a private tutor, even better. But be sure to get a recommendation from a knowledgeable friend—not every native speaker is a good teacher.
While focusing on grammar building blocks, the program sacrifices basic elements of conversation such as, “Hello” or, “My name is,” or, “Help!” Though you’ll be able to say, “There is not an elephant under the airplane,” I’m not sure you’ll ever have a reason to use this sentence in daily conversation.
Rosetta Stone has another drawback. Each lesson is structured exactly the same—identical exercises in the same order. This is bad practice—different languages pose different challenges. Also, many languages have structures Rosetta Stone isn’t equipped to teach: the Arabic dual number (words have singular, dual and plural endings), the Russian verbal aspect system, the Spanish subjunctive and so forth are all distinctive. Rosetta’s software does not address any of these eccentricities.
This is crucial—reading an article about unfamiliar material is distressingly complex. But if you know the subject, it can be pleasantly easy, since you’ll be able to guess many unfamiliar words. You’ll need to start out with a dictionary, but once you learn frequently-used words, you’ll be able to go without it and guess most of the things you don’t know.
You can also read books that have been translated from English into your chosen language—all the better if it’s a book you know. I have a copy of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity in German, for example. Hornby’s clear English is translated into similarly clear German, without some of the convoluted sentence structures many native Germans use. I know the original book and movie, so I myself can zip through it.
My pronunciation isn’t perfect, but it never fails to win a slightly surprised smile. Next step? I’ll order the coffee in Polish, too. Then, I’ll try, “Goodbye.”