We can’t learn languages as adults… the same way we did as children.
As children, our minds are ripe for language absorption. Little minds buzz with potential, absorbing sounds, gestures, and intonations, skillfully piecing together the puzzle of communication. Indeed, up until around the age of four or five, children exhibit an uncanny ability to innovate grammar - to adopt and internalize new grammatical systems purely through exposure. But something changes as we age. Our once sponge-like brains seem to harden, and we can no longer soak up languages with the same effortless finesse.
We often romanticize the notion of learning languages as we did when we were children. Some language learning tools even market themselves with the promise of learning "just like you did as a child." However, this notion is misleading. As we mature beyond our early years, even young children start to struggle with adopting new grammatical structures. The ease of language acquisition in our childhood years becomes an uphill task as we age. It's not that we lose our ability to learn languages entirely; instead, our learning methods must adapt.
So, can adults learn new languages effectively? Absolutely. The key lies in understanding and leveraging our adult learning strengths and strategies. Our approach to language acquisition as adults should pivot away from pure immersion and exposure towards a more systematic exploration of grammar.
Unlike our childhood selves, adults possess sophisticated analytical skills and abstract reasoning. We can consciously study a language's rules and patterns, its structures and exceptions, and understand them as systems - something beyond a child's capability. Harnessing these cognitive skills in learning a new language's grammar can expedite our proficiency in that language.
A useful tool for this systematic exploration of grammar is a Memory Palace. A Memory Palace, or the Method of Loci, is a mnemonic device where information is spatially organized in one's mind for efficient retrieval. By storing grammatical rules and structures in a Memory Palace, we can both retrieve and use them effectively, making the language learning process more streamlined and manageable.
As adults, while our ability to internalize a new grammar system purely through exposure may wane, our capacity to learn new vocabulary remains robust. Consider the professional jargon you've mastered throughout your career. Most of these specialized terms were acquired in adulthood but within the existing grammatical framework of our native languages. So, once we've established a foundation in the new language's grammar using a systematic approach, we can then proceed to immerse ourselves in the language, expanding our vocabulary just as we continually do in our native languages.
It is essential to embrace the unique way we learn as adults, celebrating our ability to approach complexities systematically. So, forget the misleading promise of learning a new language like a child, and embrace the powerful, analytical, and systematic adult learner in you. Remember, while our childhood years are a period of remarkable language absorption, our adult years are a testament to our resilience, our capacity to adapt, and our lifelong learning journey.