Mastering Languages Later in Life: Why Adults Have the Upper Hand

learning a language as an adult

It is widely believed that children have an advantage in learning languages because of their developmental stages.

Would you believe me if I said that adults actually have an advantage when it comes to learning a new language?

In fact, you already know more than one “second” language – how to talk to your boss versus how to talk to your kids, or professional terminology for your job that others outside your industry don’t understand.

Thus, you’re always learning “new” languages!

As an adult, learning English and becoming fluent can be so much easier once you stop using traditional language learning methods.

As an adult, you’re much closer to achieving fluency than you might think as compared to learning as a child.

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Childhood Language Learning Disadvantages

Children generally seem to have the upper hand when it comes to language development – it seems like they can pick up new languages without any effort! However, learning new languages during childhood has several disadvantages.

1. The lack of control over learning is the first problem

A child learns a language as part of their natural environment, which can leave gaps in their language skills if they aren’t exposed to comprehensive instruction.

A child might hear a word or phrase when they are two years old, but not really understand what it means. Years later, they hear the word again in another context and finally understand it, which gives them confidence to use it.

Consider the term “bicycle.” For a child, it simply means a rideable object. However, as they mature, they discover that “bi” refers to “two” and “cycle” refers to “wheel.” These intricate word associations can be grasped early on with thoughtful guidance from parents. Unfortunately, language education is not always structured in this manner, leaving children without a full understanding for years. On the other hand, adult learners have the ability to take charge of their own learning by seeking out examples promptly.

In addition, children learn from adults, such as their parents and teachers, as well as formal educational systems, including nursery schools and elementary schools. There are few opportunities for children to explore language deeply, and to understand how to use English phrases in a way that adults can. Therefore, it is difficult for them to get more information about vocabulary, even if they want to.

2. Development of cognitive abilities

The brains of children are incredibly adaptable, but they’re still in the early stages of cognitive development, so they need “language nutrition” to thrive.

There are many people who find it difficult to comprehend complex grammar structures and abstract language concepts, and children are no exception. This can make learning a new language challenging.

However, adult learners are capable of understanding more complex concepts, so their progress can be faster.

3. Exposure is limited

It’s rare for children to travel to different environments or areas to learn. Most of them are limited to school or family settings, which may limit their exposure to different dialects or regional accents.

On the other hand, adult learners can explore things as they want, and they can get the varied review they need to build fluency. For instance, if you want to learn about a topic, you can simply go to YouTube and watch many videos about it.

Besides limiting children’s exposure to essential input for developing fluency, this limitation also delays their progress.

The advantages of learning a language as an adult

We adults have a number of advantages that make us incredibly effective language learners.

1. Prior Knowledge and Cognitive Ability

We approach learning a new language as adults with a wealth of prior knowledge and cognitive abilities.

With years of exposure to various contexts, we understand how to make connections that help us acquire fluency in a new language.

It is thanks to our autonomy and multilingual abilities that we can grasp complex concepts, such as words with multiple meanings. This proves the myth that you can’t learn a language in your adult years.

As you learn new things every day in your native language, you simply need to learn English the same way, with a variety of native examples.

2. Education under control

We have control over our learning habits and paths as adults. We can decide where and how to learn.

Learning languages traditionally involves sitting in a classroom, memorizing lists of words and their definitions. But that won’t get us to true fluency.

It is possible to take language courses like Fluent For Life, use language learning apps like Frederick, or use Naturally Varied Review to learn how to think in English. Because these strategies and tools teach English as a FIRST language, they work because they are systematic, so you become fluent faster.

3. Multilingualism

It is often the case that adults are fluent in multiple “second languages,” which is an important advantage when learning a language as an adult. I touched on it briefly at the beginning of this article, but it’s worth discussing in more depth.

There are many different types of languages, ranging from professional jargon to varying communication styles adapted to various settings. The ability to switch between “languages” fluidly demonstrates our ability to learn and master MULTIPLE new languages effectively. For example, how you talk casually with your friends differs from how you talk in a professional setting.

As a result of this experience, we become more adept at recognizing patterns and forming connections, which leads to fluent, confident communication.

How to become fluent in English as an adult

Having briefly discussed the advantages of learning a new language as an adult, and that no age is too old to learn a second language, let’s now discuss the methods that lead to lifelong fluency.

1. Systematic Immersion: Its Power

The most important tool in our language learning toolbox is systematic immersion. It’s the key to language fluency as an adult.

Experiencing English-speaking environments and media can expose you to a wide range of accents and contexts, which is why I call Naturally Varied Review. The point is that you do it systematically, getting input that helps you learn vocabulary and grammar as quickly as possible.

Getting fluent isn’t just about being around native speakers; you need systematic immersion as well. The “missing ingredient” is systematic input that helps them understand things as quickly as possible. Millions of non-native English learners live in English-speaking countries but never become fluent speakers.

As an example, hearing many people speak about the same or similar topics can help you process language patterns – without having to speak before you’re ready – AND can help you learn more quickly!

There is no need to move to an English-speaking country or take an English immersion course to get systematic immersion. Many people do these things and never become fluent.

Rather than learning in English (like immersion), Fluent For Life (which guarantees English fluency) systematically builds your understanding and confidence (the keys to speaking fluently).

2. Practice without boring repetitions

Since Naturally Varied Review is so essential to developing fluency, it’s helpful to explain it further.

Although repetition is a helpful tool for learning, it limits our ability to truly comprehend what we are learning. For example, repeating the word “bicycle” might improve your listening or pronunciation slightly, but it does not deepen your understanding.

You feel more confident about speaking when you hear related words like “bifurcate,” which means to divide, and “bilingual,” meaning to speak two languages.

Using Naturally Varied Review as an adult allows us to reinforce our language skills, and remember new vocabulary and grammar using context as points of reference.

Take a look at a scenario you encounter every day, like going to your favorite coffee shop in the morning.

Every morning, the barista greets you and asks, “How are you today?” You reply, “I’m fine, thanks.” How else might you respond?

Make a list of responses you might use instead of your usual response.

You could say:

  • Thanks to the nice weather, I’m doing great!
  • I’m doing well. Thanks for asking. I wish it wasn’t so cold outside.
  • It’s very kind of you to ask. I’m doing well. How are you?”

Observing how others order at a cafe will also increase your vocabulary, understanding, confidence, and fluency!

Having considered all possible ways to respond, you can practice them alone until you feel ready to speak them out loud. This will help you learn how to speak English fluently, even if it seems the opposite of what you’ve been taught.

3. The importance of embracing a child-like curiosity

While adults may have more life experiences and cognitive advantages, children often excel at one thing more than adults – being curious. Children ask questions, make mistakes, and approach the world with a sense of wonder.

As an adult, you can adopt a child-like curiosity to learn a language, which can expedite your path to fluency.

Using apps like Frederick to discover new words and meanings on your own, you can bring curiosity to your English journey as an adult.

The Fast Track to Fluency: Get Fluent For Life

In terms of learning a foreign language, children have a head start, but adults have multiple tools at their disposal to become fluent in English.

Learning a language can be easier for adults due to their life experience, education, and foundational knowledge.

By learning English as a FIRST language, you can increase your fluency and speak confidently FAST!

I created Fluent For Life to help intermediate to advanced English learners achieve their English dreams. It’s the only course that teaches English as a FIRST language, and guarantees fluency.

Now is the time to get started!