A woman with a passport and a shoulder travel bag

As our global network expands, news, trends and TikTok dances spread internationally through the web of social media. We can cook anything from Chicken Tikka Masala to Vietnamese Pho right in our kitchens. We are woven together more than ever before. Yet, learning the language of another culture deepens our ability to learn about its people. 

Children have a “critical period” of learning in which they pick up the patterns of a language, which is why we hear that it’s easier to learn new languages at a young age. Are adult learners a hopeless case? I chatted with memory researcher Hannah Tarder-Stoll, a PhD candidate in Psychology at Columbia University, to learn more about how adults can capitalize on our brain function to learn new languages. Her expertise, combined with some practical tips, will give your learning goals that je ne sais quois.

Gather your tools. 

The right resources can make or break your learning experience. Research to find out whether or not classes are offered in your community center. Investigate resources for embarking on a solo mission. Duolingo, Memrise and Babbel are a few apps that modern learners love. If you prefer to bury your nose in a book, then look online for a beginner’s resource. Don’t forget to make sure it has supplementary practice exercises, too!

Set realistic practice goals for yourself.

This is a big one. We all have experienced the thrill of diving full-force into a new hobby, only to find that level of commitment unsustainable. Set reasonable expectations to avoid getting burned out and dropping your study altogether. Ten minutes each day is better than nothing at all!

Test yourself.

Flipping through a book is a great way to gain exposure to new vocabulary words. However, Tarder-Stoll says that testing yourself afterward helps your brain practice retrieving information and exercises self-generation (the idea that you are generating new words yourself, as opposed to simply recognizing them). Replace time typically spent scrolling on Instagram by flipping through flashcards on Quizlet and commit new words and phrases into memory.

Find a language buddy and stay in contact. 

 A journal published in 2012 by the American Educational Research Association suggests that second language acquisition is aided by language as a function of social problem solving. This means that engaging in real conversation teaches you to connect new words with a socially-appropriate context. Just like we know when to say “excuse me” versus “I’m sorry” in English, nuance comes from practical application. 

Maybe it’s a neighbor, a former teacher or a friend who vows to embark on the language learning process with you. You can even find a local language group using Meetup. (They have virtual Meetups to accommodate social distancing!)

Listen up.

Immersing yourself in the sounds of a language is an excellent way to reinforce the regularities of that language. One example would be learning which syllables typically go together. Swap out your typical morning podcast with the news stream of your chosen language. Find a new favorite singer. Join a foreign language movie club (or start one!)

Learn how to say it.

Listening is one thing, but repeating is another. Every language has its own pronunciation rules, and it’s easy to develop incorrect pronunciation habits when trying to decode new words on your own. Invest in a pronunciation guide to break down the basic sounds of a new language. Remember, you are going for accuracy, not speed, so learning the pronunciation guidelines at the beginning of your process is an investment in your future language skills.

Make mistakes. 

Tarder-Stoll says, “We are taught that mistakes are bad, but making a mistake can be really good for memory. When you make an error and receive corrective feedback, you are much more likely to remember it in the future. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Instead, capitalize on making a mistake.”

She says that when you get an error signal, it pushes the brain to encode new information. Give yourself a little love and embrace your mistakes! 

Learn English grammar.

To native speakers, grammar is intuitive. Despite the best efforts of our middle school English teachers, many of us can’t identify the terms describing our grammatical framework. That’s because most of us just picked up sentence structure in that critical phase of learning as kids.

Tarder-Stoll suggests that as adults, we can capitalize on existing neural networks, like those containing the sentence structures of our native language and use them as a basis for integrating new information. To assimilate the grammatical rules of a new language into your existing network, start by identifying what they are in your native language (past participle, future perfect, imperfect, oh my!)

Give yourself a refresher course with a book (like English Grammar for Students of Frenchof English grammar for foreign language students. Save yourself confusion down the road.

Get some sleep!

Tarder-Stoll emphasizes the important role of sleep in consolidating memory. The neural-networks at the basis of memory take hours to form, and most are formed during sleep. Plus, if you review something right before you go to bed, then you minimize interfering information that could disrupt the consolidation process. While you are on your second language journey, make sure you carve out enough time to rest!

Language is a reflection of the values and principles that a society holds dear. With a little persistence and a lot of patience, you can take the next steps to deepen your cultural learning.

Would you be interested in learning a new language? What is one thing that might be stopping you?

Image via Megan Galante, Darling Issue No. 24

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