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Adults Can Learn New Languages, Here's Why

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Scene 1. A small classroom, nighttime. A man stands alone in the middle of a circle of students. He approaches one young pupil and grabs the pair of headphones dangling around his neck. A petite woman in a pink dress shouts “Vouloir!” The man grins, bows, and returns to his seat.

Tonight I’m one of 14 adult students at Act French, where instructor Manisha Snoyer teaches French language through drama. For the current exercise, everyone takes turns acting out a different French verb until someone guesses it correctly. Vlad, a muscular 30-something who’s come to the class with his giggly wife, has been trying to pantomime the word “vouloir,” or “want,” hence the staged headphone robbery.

Photo by Jess Ivy

A few weeks earlier, I’d read about some study findings suggesting that, under the right circumstances, adults can learn to speak a foreign language like natives. I’d always assumed that after adolescence, it was pretty much impossible for people to learn a second language really well, and these results seemed exciting. So, armed with a foreign language vocabulary that included “bella note,” “nants ingonyama,” and “supercalifragilous” (thanks, Disney), I set off to find the most effective and least conventional ways that adults learn new languages.

These Words of Mine: Can Adults Really Learn Foreign Languages?

For a long time scientists thought only kids could achieve high proficiency in a foreign language [1]. Even today, there’s evidence that some aspects of second language acquisition get harder as we age. After age 12, it’s almost impossible to get that Italian accent when professing your love in Venice; post-15, it’s difficult to achieve native-like grammar.

But the results of this latest research, led by Michael Ullmann and Kara Morgan-Short, leave some hope for us geezers out of high school. The study compared two groups of people (average age mid-20s) learning an artificial language: one through explicit training, similar to standard classroom methods, and the other through implicit training, similar to immersion. After six months, the groups performed equally on proficiency tests. But brain scans revealed something surprising: The group that learned through immersion-like training showed brain activity similar to native speakers, while the group stuck translating “see spot run” didn’t. According to Morgan-Short, these results mean that the immersion group might be able to use the language better in stressful situations (Dónde esta el baño?!) and retain the language better than the explicitly-trained group.

To me these results were incredibly interesting for two distinct reasons. First off, they suggest that it is in fact possible for adults to attain native-like proficiency in a foreign language. And second, they’re evidence that language immersion, or being in a place where people speak only the language you’re learning, may be the absolute most effective way for adults to learn a new language [2].

I started looking around for research on adult foreign language learning, even techniques that didn’t necessarily involve immersion. As it turns out, adults are not only capable of achieving native-like proficiency in a foreign language; they may have an easier time learning second languages than kids do. In 1970, Hungarian translator Lomb Kató published How I Learn Languages (the English version came out in 2008), in which she discusses the benefits of learning a language as an adult. In The Art and Science of Learning Languages, published in 1996, Eric Gunnemark suggests adults are generally literate, understand abstractions, and have decent attention spans (oh, and did you see my latest tweet?) — all skills that come in handy when learning a new language. In terms of study habits, adults usually organize their time better than kids do.

On the other hand, there are a lot of non-neurological reasons why it can be hard to learn a language as an adult. Florence Leclerc-Dickler, Chair of Foreign Languages at the New School in New York City, said adults can be “very concerned” about pronouncing words correctly and want to fully understand the grammatical structure before they start speaking. “Kids do it in a much more natural, spontaneous way,” she added.

One way to help adult language learners get over their shyness about speaking is to let them sing instead. Right now Leclerc-Dickler is writing an adult French textbook based on songs about an American couple that travels to Paris. Leclerc-Dickler isn’t the first to use music in a foreign language curriculum (my friend still has nightmares about singing “I’m a Little Teapot” in front of our college Hebrew class), but she says her textbook will make music the “backbone of the [teaching] method.”

Through music, students can start humming and singing without focusing too much on pronunciation and structure, Leclerc-Dickler said. “So it helps adults be less self-conscious. … Eventually the idea is to go from singing to speaking.”

At El Taller Latino Americano on New York’s Upper West Side, founder Bernardo Palombo uses a similar method of language instruction. Palombo teaches one adult beginner class only in song, using melody and repetition to help students learn Spanish. I met with Palombo on a Monday night in a little classroom covered almost completely in bright, glittery paintings and children’s handwriting. We were talking about his music class when he pulled out a spiral notebook and drew a picture of a human body, which he proceeded to divide down the middle. One half, he told me, represents the “logical” part of the brain, and the other is the “non-logical” part. Learning a language, he said, should tap into that non-logical part, which is exactly what he thinks music does. For adults and children, he said, music can be an incredibly useful teaching method.

Like music, drama could help adults feel more comfortable learning new languages. Snoyer trained as an actress in France and founded Into This City, the boutique language school where she teaches Act French, in 2009. “There are lots of similarities between learning how to act and how to express yourself in a foreign language,” she said, since each one is ultimately about communication. Students in her class practiced a scene from a French play and when a middle-aged woman in glasses and a sweater almost whispered her lines from the corner of the room, Snoyer stopped her and advised, in English: “Communicate! That means you’re not looking at the page.”

Things were slightly mellower during Literature Night at El Taller, where I was one of four students including a peppy ESL teacher and a retired high school French instructor. During a vocabulary exercise, students theorized about the difficulties of exact translation from English to Spanish. Instructor Alexandra Castaño chimed in periodically, but the discussion took place largely between the students, shouting explanations across the table as though discussing philosophy.

“The only way adults can learn language,” Palombo told me later that night, “is if they are also a teacher.”

During Literature Night, Castaño and her students spoke pretty much exclusively en Español. But when we broke mid-way for wine and cheese, we lapsed almost immediately into English. While this new research suggests immersion is the most effective way to learn a new language, I could see that it was difficult to create an immersive environment without heading straight for a foreign country.

At Middlebury College in Vermont, Michael Geisler runs the Language Schools, where students participate in immersion programs for Chinese, German, and other languages. Geisler told me there’s nothing more effective than cutting yourself off from your native tongue; immersion is “the most efficient, really the fastest way” to learn a foreign language. The program at Middlebury is tough: All students are required to sign the Language Pledge, in which they promise not to speak anything but the language they’re learning, at risk of being kicked out.

Ullman and Morgan-Short’s research suggests there’s science behind these scary-sounding rules. According to Ullman, his results mean that, in the long term, immersion is probably more effective than classroom training. But don’t swap your Spanish language class for a ticket to Mexico just yet: Ullman said this research “doesn’t mean that classroom training isn’t useful.” In fact, he suggested classroom training could even be “better [than immersion] for learning a language initially.”

Over the course of my research, I learned language education isn’t so much a battle between immersion and classroom training; almost all methods of instruction have their downsides. At a Hebrew conversation group on the Upper West Side, one woman who’d just started an online tutorial broke out in a sweat when someone asked her anything that didn’t have to do with books, waiters, or strawberries. During a Hebrew Meetup earlier that month, I felt tears spring to my eyes when someone asked me a seemingly simple question, then turned immediately to his fluent neighbor and joked, “Hee lo mevinah.” (It means “she doesn’t understand,” and I did.)

Immersion programs have some potential disadvantages, too, like the fact that they typically take up a lot of time and money. (An eight-week session at Middlebury’s Chinese School costs almost $10,000, compared to the language classes I visited, which ranged from four weeks for $140 to about $600 for six weeks.) Immersion programs can also be intimidating, turning even the most eager students into professional pantomimes. During college my friend spent a summer doing a Chinese immersion program in Hangzhou, a city in Eastern China. It took him weeks of talking mostly to himself to work up the confidence to speak to his classmates.

Still, he told me over Skype that the experience was well worth the struggle: “Language is never easy, but doing it as intensively as possible for as long as you can bear is the only way to jump the initial hurdle.”

Express Yourself: Learning More Than a Language

When it comes to foreign language education, mishaps are inevitable. But there’s something liberating about showing up every week to the same place and becoming someone else for the night — someone who speaks French, or Spanish, or Hebrew, who doesn’t have the same worries about work or family, who laughs at her mistakes, and is always open to learning something new. Every few weeks, the Act French group goes on a cultural outing in the city — dining at a Haitian restaurant or touring a French museum — and for Snoyer, these experiences justify the challenges of running her own business. Spending time with the “truthful, creative people” she meets in her classes is always, she said, the most rewarding part of teaching.

Foreign language learning can also be unpredictable, anything but a routine set of drills and measurable progress. After the Act French class I lingered outside the classroom to talk to Snoyer. Around us a group of French interns shouted “Adieu” as they bounded down the stairs into the night.

In the newly empty hallway, we sat down and I asked if she really thought drama was the best way to learn a foreign language.

Second best, she answered without hesitation. The best way to learn a foreign language is to meet a native speaker — she smiled broadly — and fall in love.

Did you learn to speak a second language as an adult? How’d you do it? Tell us in the comments below.

I'm the senior writer at Greatist, and I mainly cover new trends in psychology and mental health. When I'm not hanging out at Greatist HQ,... Read More »