10 Tips for Learning a Foreign Language as an Adult

You Can Gain a Competitive Edge by Being Bilingual

Illustration of two people having a conversation

While the U.S. is home to over 350 different languages, according to a report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), most Americans are monolingual. And this limitation can negatively impact individuals, U.S. companies, and even the country. 

For example, the AAAS notes that learning a second language improves cognitive ability, assists in learning other subjects, and delays some of the effects of aging.

Other findings: up to 30% of U.S. companies have stated that they’ve missed business opportunities in foreign countries because they didn’t have in-house staff who spoke the languages of those countries, and 40% stated they could not reach their international potential because of language barriers.  However, one of the most striking and alarming examples of the importance of learning a foreign language happened at the onset of the 2004 avian flu epidemic. According to the AAAS, scientists in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries did not originally understand the magnitude of avian flu because they could not read the original research – which was written by Chinese researchers.

In fact, the report notes that just 200,000 U.S. students are studying Chinese, compared to 300 to 400 million Chinese students who are studying English. And 66% of Europeans know at least one other language, compared to just 20% of Americans.

Many European countries have national requirements that students must learn at least one foreign language by the age of 9, according to data from the Pew Research Center. In the U.S., school districts are typically allowed to set their own policies. As a result, the vast majority (89%) of American adults who know a foreign language say they learned it in their childhood home.

Learning styles for children

Children and adults learn foreign languages differently. Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, tells ThoughtCo, “Children generally learn languages through games, songs, and repetition, and in an immersive environment, they often produce speech spontaneously.” And there’s a reason for that spontaneity. Katja Wilde, head of Didactics at Babbel, tells ThoughtCo, “Children are less aware of making mistakes and the associated embarrassment, and therefore don't correct themselves, which adults do.”

Learning styles for adults

However, Feal explains that with adults, studying the formal structures of the language is usually helpful. “Adults learn to conjugate verbs, and they benefit from grammatical explanations along with strategies such as repetition, memorizing key phrases, and so on.”

Adults also learn in a more conscious way, according to Wilde. “They have strong metalinguistic awareness, which children don’t have.” This means that adults reflect on the language they learn.  ‘For example ‘Is this the best word to express what I want to say’ or ‘Did I use the correct grammar structure?’ etcetera,” Wilde explains.

And adults usually have different motivators.

Wilde says that adults typically have specific reasons for learning a foreign language. “Better quality of life, self-improvement, career advancements and other intangible benefits are usually the motivating factors."  

It has often been said that it’s easier for children to learn a foreign language, but Wilde disagrees.  “Although children tend to be better at subconscious learning, or acquisition, adults tend to be better at learning, because they are able to process more complex thought processes.”

Wilde recommends an article that includes 10 language learning tips by Matthew Youlden. Besides speaking 9 languages, Youlden is – among other things – a linguist, translator, interpreter, and instructor. Below are his 10 tips, although the article provides more in-depth information:

1) Know why you're doing it.

2) Find a partner.

3) Talk to yourself.

4) Keep it relevant.

5) Have fun with it.

6) Act like a child.

7) Leave your comfort zone.

8) Listen.

9) Watch people talk.

10) Dive in.

Feal also recommends other ways for adults to learn a foreign language, such as watching TV broadcasts and film in the target language. “In addition, reading written materials of all kinds, engaging in interactive conversations on the web, and for those who can travel, an in-country experience can help adults make meaningful progress.”

In addition to these tips, Wilde says that Babbel offers on-line courses that can be completed in bite-sized chunks, anytime and anywhere. Other sources for learning a new language include Learn A Language, Fluent in 3 Months, and DuoLingo.

College students can also take advantage of study abroad programs where they can learn new languages and new cultures.

Learning a new language can lead to career opportunities - especially since multilingual employees can earn higher salaries. However, it can also increase cognitive skills, and result in a more informed, diverse country.