Learning a language as an adult provides unique challenges to every learner. While many methods exist, from Rosetta Stone® to Defense Language Institute courses, each one offers its own advantages and disadvantages. As children, we naturally pick up language at a rapid pace, but this ability begins to fade around age six, and decreases dramatically after adolescence. Due to this change in learning abilities, we need to acknowledge the importance of tailoring language study specifically for adults.
During my seven years of language study as a linguist in the United States Air Force, I realized there are three important aspects of not only learning, but of maintaining a language. They are: (1) structure, (2) learning style, and (3) dedication. Forming the foundation of each of these areas is efficiency. As adults, we are rarely able to dedicate large amounts of time to any one activity, therefore every moment of language study must be as effective as possible.
The Defense Language Institute has researched the structure of language classes to maximize success and minimize the stress of language study. Fifty minutes of study has been shown to be the tipping point at which the quality of learning fades, therefore a 10-minute break is provided so that students can rebound and continue learning. Additionally, having a consistent lesson format, i.e. vocabulary first, followed by listening, then speaking, can reduce some of the thought that is required to study, thereby making the learning more effective.
Each individual has his/her own learning style and it needs to be discovered before studying language. Many online tests are available at no cost to identify different learning styles, but these should be viewed as loose guides, rather than as the basis of a learning methodology. Instructors who are overly influenced by learning style and neglectful of best teaching practices typically produce poor results. Therefore, it is important to focus on known methodologies, while taking into consideration the individual’s learning style. This ensures that students stay interested, and creates a more efficient learning environment.
Finally, the dedication of the learner is paramount to the success of any language study because learning foreign languages is very challenging for most adults. Dedication does not have to exist at the onset of learning, but needs to develop and improve over time. Once it exists, this dedication often develops into enthusiasm, which greatly enhances long-term language development. Perseverance is necessary because language ability fades over time if it is not regularly utilized. Remaining proficient in simple language concepts is far more efficient than relearning the concepts altogether.
It is important to recognize the challenges of learning a new language as an adult, and to adhere to the teaching methodologies that have proved successful. Consistent lesson structure helps keep the focus of the students on the new language versus the method of learning. Keeping a balance between individual learning styles and methods also helps keep students engaged. Lastly, dedication to the language, and the development of a sense of pride in one’s abilities, is what leads to long-term success in learning any language.