Adult Language Learning: Why Is It Harder For Adults To Learn And Be Fluent In New Languages?

What You Need To Know About Adult Language Learning

When you are a child and are learning your first words, you are learning both the concept for something (say, the idea of breakfast) and a label for it (the word ‘breakfast’) at the same time. The concept and label for words are stored separately in the brain and joined by a link. Why then is ‘desayuno’ so hard to remember when learning Spanish? When you study a foreign language, you are adding a second label to the same concept. Because your brain already has a label for ‘morning meal’, it doesn’t think it needs another. In fact, we are somewhat engineered to equate one word to one concept.

When we practice reflection and think about words as labels to the new concepts which children formulate gradually by observing various aspects of the concept, we understand why the image – word combinations used as the main learning tool by all conventional methods don’t work. Image or photo is not a concept! Therefore, the statement “you learn your second language the way you learned your first” is misleading. The article Why Can't Adults Learn Languages Like Children Do? explains why adults can’t learn languages like children do.

The Problem With Mother Tongue

According to Norman Doidge, psychiatrist and author of The Brain That Changes Itself:

Learning a second language, after the critical period for language learning has ended, is more difficult because, as we age, the longer we use our native language, the further it comes to dominating our linguistic map space. Because plasticity is competitive, it is so hard to learn a new language and end the tyranny of the mother tongue.

An adult must work harder than a child to master a new language, because the brain protects the authority of its native language. Most practical teachers of EFL feel that when learners fall back on their mother tongue to help create the second language system, that is a necessity, not a mistake.

Detailed scrutiny of how the mother tongue is used in learning reveals the negative impact of this seemingly natural process: Bilingual information is more difficult to memorize.

The main negative impact of using the mother tongue in creating the second language system is associated with cross-translation. Most adults, when learning a foreign language, subconsciously revert to cross-translation to and from their mother tongue. Cross-translation is the main barrier most teachers ignore. When you cross-translate, you think in your native language while trying to speak in a foreign language.

Children do not have the cross-translation problem and acquire any language in their environment subconsciously by forming direct links between symbols or concepts and words or phrases in the new language. So, every language that a child learns becomes native to them. Children preserve this ability until about 12 years of age.

It does not mean that for adults we should avoid L1 (the learner's first language) completely. The support in L1 is necessary, but it should be organized in a new way: The lesson context is shown in L1, but is never pronounced or spoken aloud. We use L1 to create a visual representation of the new text in L2 (the new language), and then redirect all efforts to working exclusively in L2.

Teachers believe that cross-translation is a natural phenomenon and that nothing can be done to diminish its impact on adults who are trying hard to learn a foreign language. The human brain is built to resist a second language; that is why N. Doidge calls this phenomenon the tyranny of the mother tongue. There are plenty of reasons why foreign languages are challenging, but one of the most important has to do with a key difference between learning your first and second languages.

Those adults who manage to form direct connections between words of a foreign language and symbols or concepts they describe are capable of forming a new language speech center in the brain. When they are trying to translate their thoughts into a foreign language, they activate their new language center in the brain and are able to express their thoughts and feelings fluently. Unfortunately, about 5 out of 100 people are capable to do it; these people are called language-capable. The remaining 95% need a new pedagogy of learning English if they want to achieve the same success that language-capable are demonstrating naturally.

The new pedagogy is based on concurrent triple activity: Reading, listening, and speaking. In other words, to become successful learners they need simultaneous repetition: Repeating while listening and reading at the same time. Simultaneous repetition delivers the tool that turns off cross-translation or the natural habit of thinking in the mother tongue.

We pronounce all sounds in our native language automatically, and the same subconscious component in pronouncing words in the new language develops during simultaneous repetition. Furthermore, simultaneous repetition improves visualization and ability to form direct links between symbols or concepts and their descriptors, i. e. English words, without reverting to cross-translation.

There are two types of grammar: Intuitive Grammar and Formal Grammar. Intuitive grammar acts more like a feeling than a memorized set of rules. Adults' brains have a capacity to find and record patterns in everything that we experience or do. Thus the intuitive grammar is acquired subconsciously in the process of re-enacting comprehensible situations exclusively in English. Intuitive grammar acts instantaneously and does not require the learner to remember and apply rules. The more you experience the language, the better your brain understands the rules of intuitive grammar, and the better you are able to speak in that language.

The Difference Between Passive Learning And Active Learning Of English skills

When a teacher explains formal grammar in English, learners automatically translate the information into their native language because they don’t know English yet. However, 90% of information is erased from short-term memory in 30 days unless it is reinforced by use or repetition. This is another reason why learning formal grammar is a waste of time. Millions of language learners in China, Korea, and other countries, with a flawless knowledge of formal grammar and high scores in various certification programs, can read and write in English, but very seldom can speak English fluently.

In conclusion let me restate again that the adults experience difficulties in learning foreign languages because conventional pedagogies dissect the language into individual components and teach reading, speaking, pronunciation, and grammar separately. When this environment of Passive Learning is turned into Active Learning and all language skills are practiced simultaneously, the adults will learn a foreign language as effortless as children do it. The old pedagogy is conscious memorization of information; the new pedagogy of Active Learning of English skills is subconscious learning that some radical educators call training of English skills.

The difference between the conventional methods of Passive Learning and Active Learning of English skills is similar to the difference between the flat-earth thinking and round-earth thinking.

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