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Learning A Language As An Adult? Think Endurance, Self-Compassion & Consistency.

I have been tutoring foreign languages since I was 17, usually working with either GCSE students, or even younger. At the beginning of 2021, I started tutoring Clare, a family friend, in Spanish. Clare was my first adult student, and I have always found it interesting to see how different (and, indeed, similar) her learning needs and experiences are to those learning at school. I had the pleasure of asking her more about her first-hand experience regarding the rewards and difficulties of learning a new language as an adult.

Clare’s Foreign Languages Background.

Clare’s experience with language learning, like many of us, began at school with French O-Level (now known as GCSE’s). She enjoyed learning French and continued to make use of it whilst travelling and spending periods of time living in France. With the consistency of school lessons and continued practice when abroad, it makes sense that Clare feels like French became somewhat imprinted onto her mind, something that she can switch to with ease.

Clare, along with many others, took the COVID-19 lockdown as an opportunity to learn a new language. Spanish seemed like the most useful choice as both she and her husband enjoy sailing in Spain. Clare began Spanish lessons which focused more on the grammatical side and came to me to deepen her conversational skills and put that grammatical knowledge into practice.

Clare describió como, al principio, es como estar frente a un muro de ladrillos – absolutamente impenetrable. Intentar aprender nuevos sonidos y pronunciaciones que tu boca no quiere hacer, empezar de cero puede desilusionarte mucho.

Clare reckons that it took around 4 or 5 hours of lessons before feeling like she was “starting to fire on all cylinders”. After that, the wall in her brain started breaking down brick by brick, allowing in a constant drip of new knowledge, and eventually, lessons left her brain craving more and more.

Learning As An Adult: The Advantages.

Hablamos sobre las ventajas de aprender un idioma, aparte del idioma en sí mismo. Sobre todo, destacamos 3 aspectos: los beneficios fisiológicos, la mejora de relaciones interpersonales e interculturales, y una profundización en el conocimiento de, no solo la cultura de la lengua de aprendizaje, sino también tu propia cultura.

The Physiological Benefits.

Clare talked about how she could literally feel her “brain opening up” when she got into the rhythm of language learning. She explained how, once you reach adulthood, “you get to a stage where you tend not to use your brain as much, because you know your job, you have experience, you know your family situation.”

Learning a language allows your brain to regain some of the flexibility which you lose over time. In fact, it is now scientifically proven that language learning in adulthood helps create and strengthen neural networks and increase brain plasticity, slowing down the effects of cognitive aging in the brain and even being a preventative factor in conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

Better Interpersonal And Intercultural Relations.

Clare reported feeling a “huge warmth” from the people she spoke to in Spanish. Even when the conversation felt a bit broken or she didn’t know a particular word, whoever she was speaking with would be eager to engage in a linguistic charade of sorts to help express and understand each other. These sorts of wonderful interpersonal exchanges are something you may completely miss out on living as a monolingual person.

Intercultural Understanding.

Alongside this connection to people, you also develop a deeper understanding of the culture itself and allows you to reflect on the differences to your own native culture. Clare me contó una anécdota graciosa sobre su nuevo conocimiento intercultural. Durante su última visita a España, cada mañana su marido salía a tomar un café y un día dijo a Clare que la camarera que le servía todos los días le parecía… pues un poco borde y desagradable. Un día, Clare fue con su marido a por un café y se dio cuenta de que la mujer en realidad no era nada mala, sino que su marido no entendía la manera brusca en la que los españoles se suelen comunicar.

Look at the linguistic difference between how an English barista and a Spanish barista would normally take your order:

English: Good morning! What can I get for you today?

Spanish: Dime –literally translates to tell me (your order).

Clare now feels like her “ear is tuning in” and understands that the difference in communication “doesn’t mean that they don’t mean to be as lovely and polite and gorgeous”. This sort of awareness is an amazing side-effect of language learning in adulthood and is useful for avoiding misunderstandings in an ever-increasingly intercultural world.

Clare’s top tips for language learning as an adult.

Be gentle with yourself – you can definitely do it but be aware of how long it is going to take to make your brain elastic enough again”.

“I was really beating myself up, and I really hated my first lessons because I thought ‘I’m never going to do this”. You MUST have compassion for yourself. Give yourself some grace, it is going to feel arduous at times, especially at the beginning, but remember that you are literally re-wiring your brain to think and communicate in completely new ways! Mistakes are your best friend, embrace them and learn from them.

Consistency is key. Lo bueno de aprender un idioma en el colegio es que teniendo por lo menos una clase de lengua por semana y deberes, alcanzas un nivel de regularidad en tu aprendizaje. Para fomentar el afianzamiento de tu aprendizaje como adulto, intenta recrear algo de esa constancia. Por ejemplo, desafíate a conseguir algún objetivo cada semana; aunque sea hacer dos páginas de activades, leer un artículo periodístico, o ver algún video en YouTube en el idioma meta.

“Choose a teacher or a course that is a little more geared to what you want and need.” Take advantage of the fact that you can be selective with your learning in adulthood, unlike learning a language in school. Think about your end goal and make it practical and accessible for your own needs.

Clare wanted to learn Spanish to be able to communicate with people and have a good knowledge of sailing terms, meaning that she needs the basic grammar framework but also it would be redundant (and honestly, extremely dull) to make her memorise every Spanish verb in the subjunctive tense. Instead, we focused on basic grammar, conversation and using sailing vocabulary, as that is what will be useful for her in the long run.

About The Author: Sofía is an Olea Ambassador (Team 1.0, March - Sept 2023) and is currently on her year abroad in Portugal. She is undertaking a BA in Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Manchester and speaks English, Spanish and Portuguese.


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