Apart from his native English ability, Paul’s profile lists professional working proficiency in Portuguese and German, limited proficiency in Spanish, and elementary in French and Italian. Here he hints at how he acquired these other languages and why he doesn’t intend to stop there. Do you speak a second language? Why not? According to Science Daily, “The majority of people in the world learn to speak more than one language during their lifetime.” However, I don’t think native-born North Americans are pulling their weight.
Learning other languages – even just a nodding acquaintance – makes travel so much more rewarding. Opening a conversation with a few words of the native language transforms us from tourist to traveler in the ears of the person we’re addressing. According to a Czech proverb, “You live a new life for every new language you speak.” Learning other languages may even be the key to peace and reconciliation.
“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 Mandela
At my age, I’m often tempted to say, “I’m too old for this. Our sensitive period for language learning goes downhill after age seven! On top of that, my hearing is going, and even understanding English is getting harder!” You look at initiatives like “Fluent in 3 Months” or “Fluent Every Year” and say, “Yeah, but, those are young folks!” If that’s your excuse, perhaps it’s time to set it aside. There may even be more at stake than getting around Paris, Venice, or Dubrovnik.
Every year, new studies come out showing that learning a second language is one of the best ways known to reduce or postpone age-related cognitive decline – even Alzheimer’s. A recent study in Toronto suggests that learning a second language can delay the symptoms of that brain-wasting disease for years. Lead neuroscientist, Dr. Schweizer, said that a second language appears to delay the onset of symptoms by four or five years. “This is fantastic,” he said, adding that no existing medicine is that effective. Perhaps only social dancing has a stronger effect, but not every senior is able to take up dancing. There’s also good news on the other side of the equation. New research in neuroplasticity is showing that the brain continues to develop throughout our entire lives. Books like Norman Doidge’s “The Brain that Changes Itself” offer remarkable and inspirational stories about this phenomenon. While we seniors may have to adapt the way we use our brains in order to learn new languages, such adaptation is possible, and science continues to understand it better. This excellent if lengthy article, “Memory Problems in Seniors and Learning a New Language”, offers some surprising advice based on recent research.
“How a child learned this was from hearing and using the constructions thousands of times before ever beginning their formal education. The child associates images with the words and phrases – he can use grammar correctly because he heard and repeated correct grammar over and over again! What an adult does, most unfortunately, is not associate images with words and phrases in which correct grammar and vocabulary is learned, but rather tries to remember words and phrases in the foreign language as an association with words and phrases in his native language. He is constantly, and erroneously, associating the foreign language with his native one. This short-circuits the second language learning!”
This emphasis on how children learn language is a key one, especially now that we know that we retain a considerable amount of the child’s neuroplasticity all our lives. Not only does learning a second language keep us young, but also it may be necessary to “think young” in order to learn that language.
I’ve taken that one step further. From my own experience, I’ve concluded that to learn another language most efficiently, you need to become as much like a child as possible. In a blog post a few years ago, I recounted my experience learning my first foreign language in my early twenties. The principles I distilled pretty much sum up the way a young child comes at learning their first language.
- Put something at stake that’s more important than looking good.
- Cut off all escape routes.
- Stop trying to translate everything. Learn how to think in others’ terms.
- Trust the “music of the language.” Don’t let the words get in the way.
- Unleash your natural mimic
- Relax and have fun! Enjoy the game!
Perhaps the reason we adults have trouble learning new languages has nothing to do with our ability to act like children. Maybe it has more to do with our willingness. It’s just not cool! Others are saying much the same thing. A new initiative, called Velocity Language Learning, has adult participants wearing funny hats and playing silly games as part of their strategy for getting them back into that childlike state of wonder and learning.
There are so many Internet resources for learning languages, it’s overwhelming. I listed a few in my earlier piece on “The Language Lab of Life.” I’ll list a few more links at the end of this article. My advice is to use those that give you the greatest freedom and incentive to free your inner child – and set her about learning that next language the way she learned her first. She didn’t engage endless vocabulary drills, or consult translation dictionaries and grammar texts. Instead, she was born into the pool, and it was sink or swim – and if she was lucky, the adults around her paid more attention to what she was trying to say than how many mistakes she made along the way. So, throw yourself in the pool. Go join a Meetup for your target language, or try an ESL one or polyglot one where you may find others willing to trade their language for English conversation. Leave a comment on this post and let us know what you’re doing, or what’s working for learning your new language.
My own project for the coming year is to move my Italian to the next level for a return trip to Italy. Some elementary Croatian would also be helpful for the bike tour we’re doing out of Dubrovnik on that same trip. Beyond that, who knows? To paraphrase Sandra Martz, “When I am deaf, I shall learn Sign Language.” A few more resources:
- My original list of resources (at the end of the post)
- Learning a language in later life: are you ever too old? (The Guardian)
- The Year Without English (Scott H Young)
- “How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months” (from “The 4-hour Workweek”)
- Fluent in Six Months (from “I Like Languages”)
- Our local library offers free courses via Mango Languages. (Maybe yours does too.)
- Best ways to learn a foreign language – the language triangle
- 10 Tips & Tricks to Pick up any Language
- Can the Italian Language Change Your Personality? (Sì! Assolutamente!)
- Velocity Language Learning
- These quotes on learning another language may help inspire or motivate you.
I fear that projects like SIGMO or Google Translate will reduce the incentive to learn other languages. What will keep us young then?