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Learning a New Language: How to Think Like a Child
Learning a new language will expose you to new cultures and experiences, but the task may be more challenging for some. Read on for a few tips on mastering your chosen tongue.
It wouldn’t be unusual for a toddler to ask for a cookie in two, or maybe even three languages. That’s because children as young as 2 are hardwired to internalize and mimic whatever languages they hear. With regular use, those skills can last a lifetime.
After a certain point, though, around age 12 or 13, something in the brain—we’re not quite sure what—shifts, and language acquisition becomes markedly more difficult. Straight-A students can find themselves struggling in Spanish class, and even the most persistent adult language learners may never acquire perfect fluency. Although adult brains will never return to their former sponge-like state, there are a few strategies that can ease the language-learning process.
Listening: Children absorb the sounds around them for months before ever uttering a word. This “silent period” is spent internalizing vocabulary and sentence patterns. Adults, too, can benefit from focused listening, whether through movies, music, or podcasts in their target language.
Multiple Methods: Some language classes focus on rote memorization and discussion of grammar, and others use total language immersion to mimic the state of childhood learning. Ideally, language learners should combine elements from both methods. Immersion is a great strategy for practicing vocabulary and conversation, but adults' advanced understanding of grammar can make it easier for them to learn new verb tenses and sentence structures.
Motivation: Just as kids approach their first words with enthusiasm, attitude is a critical factor for adult language learners. Students can often stay motivated by setting specific goals, such as holding a conversation with a native speaker or ordering off a French menu using only past participles.
Fearlessness: There’s no getting around the fact that adults have a harder time mastering new pronunciations. However, a fear of mispronunciation shouldn’t stop someone from practicing their new language aloud. Many cultures are used to hearing their language spoken with a foreign accent, and even imperfectly structured sentences can still convey their meaning through context. In short, practice makes perfect—even if it isn’t perfect in practice.
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