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Learning a language as an adult is far from a Herculean task (OliLynch CC0)

According to a recent report, in order to learn a second language fluently you must start before the age of ten. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston College have studied data from nearly 700,000 language learners and established that this was a “critical” age. Those who attempt to learn a new foreign language beyond that age will forever struggle.

While children have an advantage in that they can learn languages by mere exposure, and adults have to actively learn them, this report can only perpetuate the entrenched myth that learning a second language as a grown-up is a Herculean — or even Sisyphean — task. It isn’t. As a 2015 book by Richard M. Roberts and Roger J. Kreuz, Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language concluded, it needn’t be difficult. You just need the right approach.

I am living proof of this. I began teaching myself Italian from scratch eight years ago. While my GCSE French gave me a head start when it came to grammar, which is very similar to Italian, I have never had Italian lessons and haven’t been to Italy since. Yet I can now read novels in Italian without the aid of a bilingual dictionary.

I had further advantages, most of which you will also have. Learning a third language is much easier than learning a second, and Italian is simpler than French. For instance, the gender of nouns is easier to identify, with most singular masculine nouns ending “-o” and most feminine ones “-a”.

After one of my books was translated into Catalan in 2013, I decided to teach myself Catalan, a language which is actually closer to Italian than Castilian Spanish. I can now read Catalan and French newspapers unaided. I’m not perfectly fluent in these three languages when it comes to speaking them because I haven’t been to Italy since 1986 and have never been to Spain at all. But I can get by in French and hold basic conversations in Italian.

My latest project is German, which is indeed grammatically difficult. But verbs in German are comparatively easy, and much basic vocabulary in German is identical or close to modern English: Hand, Land, Mann, Fisch, Lamm, Buch, Sohn, Apfel, Milch, Bier, hier, gut, kalt and so on. A familiarity with the vocabulary and structure of Shakespeare’s English also helps: “Looks it not like the king?”, “Thou goest”, “Is he come home yet?” 

Learning another language as an adult is easy if you apply yourself properly. You will need curiosity, motivation, commitment and persistence: yet only ten minutes’ revision a day will suffice. Read Collins books on the train, listen to Pimsleur CDs in the kitchen, touch flashcards on your smartphone: the resources are abundant and ubiquitous. Have no fear. And believe not the scare stories about being too old to learn anew.
June 7th, 2018
8:06 AM
I think it is a misconception that adults can only learn a new language by actively learn it. Learning as children do, by imitation, and actively learning are the two sides of the same coin and in my opinion we have both abilities and should use them both. I speak several languages and am still trying to get a few more under my belt, and it seems to me both methods are neceswary to really learn a language. Learning by exposure and imitation will particularly put into play a person's habit-forming mechanisms, while active learning necessitates analyzing, rational thinking and conscious memorizing.

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