Why Adults Struggle To Learn A Second Language

Why Adults Struggle To Learn A Second Language
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Summary: All language learning companies use translation-based tools promising learners that they will memorize vocabulary with ease.

Reasons Why Adults Learn A Second Language Harder Than Kids

However, conscious learning is characterized by the appalling forgetting curve whereas the new subconscious training language skills is stress-free with no forgetting curve.

Children Learn Languages Easily

Children learn the first language easily and speak it with an accent characteristic of their region. An adult can’t reproduce the success he or she had when learning the first or second language, mainly because a child and an adult employ different learning mechanisms. The child’s brain records all phonemes of all languages in his or her environment. That is why, if a child hears three or four languages in his environment, he would speak three or four languages with the native accent. So, every language that a child learns becomes native to him.

For children, it is a standard approach – first listening, and then speaking. During the first year of listening, a child is unconsciously forming the database of images associated directly with the objects, feelings or actions which they describe. It would be more accurate to state a database of symbols; for example, the symbol “Mommy” includes images and feelings of love, warmth, security, known heartbeat, etc. That is why attempts to associating one image with one word in a second language, as in Rosetta Stone’s program, have demonstrated rather limited success.

After about a year of listening, a child starts speaking; it is the second stage of learning the native language. For a few months, a child goes through one-word and two-word stages before he or she starts producing sentences. In this stage, the words are wired directly to the symbols which they describe.

Children And Adults Think In A Language Of Symbols

Let me remind you that both children and adults think in a language of symbols that is wired to the native language thus creating the illusion that we think in the native language.

A great cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in his book “The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language," writes: 'People do not think in English or Chinese or Apache; they think in a language of thought (called mentalese). … knowing a language, then, is knowing how to translate mentalese into strings of words and vice versa."

Brain scans show that in a bilingual child, all the sounds of the child's two or three languages share a single large map, a library of sounds from all languages. All foreign languages learned by a child are native to him/her. That is why children translate mentalese into the first or a second language easily and express their thoughts automatically.

The Tyranny Of The Mother Tongue

Norman Doidge, MD and psychoanalyst published his book in 2008 in which he introduced the wonderfully and dramatically named concept of “the tyranny of the mother tongue”. According to N. Doidge, “learning a second language, after the critical period for language learning has ended, is more difficult because, as we age the more our native language comes to dominate the linguistic map space and the second language finds it hard to compete”. As a result of the tyranny of mother tongue most adults revert to cross-translation when learning a foreign language, and that is a recipe for failure. When adults learn a new word in a foreign language, they subconsciously associate it with a similar word in their native language and not with the symbol they describe.

Learners fall back on their mother tongue to help create a second language system. Most teachers accept this process of cross-translation as natural and inevitable. However, detailed scrutiny of how the mother tongue is used in learning a second language reveals the negative impact of this seemingly natural process: bilingual information is more difficult to memorize.

Adults Can't Reproduce The Processes Which Children Use In Language Acquisition

Adults can't reproduce the processes which children use when learning the first and second and third language. Here is why.

All leading language learning companies use translation-based tools promising learners that they will memorize vocabulary and phrases with ease. However, when we analyze the example of a tool like the one shown above, we understand that it is very hard to remember bilingual information because each language learned by adults and spoken fluently has its own center in the brain located at a certain distance from the native language center. Another negative impact of using the native language in creating the second language system is associated with the fact that adults continue thinking in the native language and try to speak in the second one. This is extremely difficult; most adults come to the wrong conclusion that they are language-incapable. All adults are capable to learn a second language; to achieve this objective easily, they need to use a different approach.

A small proportion of adults (less than 5%) somehow (the mechanism is unknown) preserve the ability to visualize both written and spoken words. This numerically insignificant category of people preserves the child’s ability to learn a new language without reverting to mother-tongue translation. Natural linguists come from this small category of people, and they are absolutely unaware of the cross-translation problem or of “the tyranny of the mother tongue” which most of their students face.

There is a funny but very sad fact: I have tried to explain the cross-translation problem in professional discussions with linguists probably a hundred times and not a single linguist was prepared to engage in a serious discussion of this problem. They are unaware of it; the very concept of cross-translation gets into their blind spot, and it doesn’t suit their preconceptions to even admit its existence.

How To Restore The Innate Ability In Adults To Learn A Foreign Language

The only way which has proved itself in solving the problem and restoring the innate ability in adults to learn a foreign language is to introduce a new habit of performing three actions at the same time: reading, listening and speaking simultaneously with the speaker. This three-action activity presents the brain with a challenging workload and automatically stops cross-translation into the mother tongue. When cross-translation is stopped, a foreign language center is formed in the brain of an adult because old symbols which were previously wired together with the words of the native language are now re-wired to the words in a second language.

Two Systems Of The Mind: System One And System Two

To explain why an adult can’t learn a foreign language by rote memorization using bilingual information, I need to remind you about two systems of the mind, introduced by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. We think slow and fast because the mind has two different systems. System One operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System Two allocates attention to the effortful mental activity and therefore is slow. For example, rote memorization belongs to System Two, whereas expression of our feelings and thoughts, i.e. speech, belongs to System One.

Subconscious Training Language Skills Belongs To System One

If you learn a foreign language with the objective of communicating in it, you need to develop it as System One. That is why the conventional methods of learning a foreign language, which belongs to rote memorization, should be replaced by subconscious training language skills. Training is the best alternative for adults since it belongs to System One. Driving a car, figure skating, playing a musical instrument, martial arts skills or speaking a foreign language – all of these skills are trained as System One. During the training of all these skills, the brain finds and records the patterns that it can perform without conscious effort and with minimal attention, i.e. effortlessly.

I want to stress that children use System One in the acquisition of their first or second language whereas adults use System Two. So, to stop struggling with the acquisition of a second language you should stop using the conventional methods of conscious learning and start using the subconscious training language skills that belong to the System One of the mind. Conscious learning is characterized by the appalling forgetting curve whereas subconscious training is stress-free and has no forgetting curve.