In recent years, science has pretty well nailed the evidence that learning a second language is good for our brains as we get older – helping avoid the onset of dementia and improving overall brain processing. Yet the idea you should have started as a child to be successful has achieved almost mythical status.
I’m researching this paradox for my master of linguistics from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. I started learning French when I was nearly 40 and after some epic failures, I can finally talk my way around France and hold random conversations with strangers in the street! What I’ve found along the way is that while each language journey is unique, they also have lots in common.
1. Motivation drives success
My motivation to learn French depends on where I am, what else is happening in my life and the deliberate choices I make to get ahead. This dynamic approach to motivation means you have to do more than just wish yourself into language learning success. It requires real effort as well as support. But wanting something enough is a good starting point!
2. Set tangible short-term goals
Goals are an inherent part of motivation. My French is boosted when I set more concrete goals, such as passing one of the official French language exams. Exams might not be for everyone, but reading your first book in French might be. Mine was Le Petit Prince and I was so completely seduced by the story that it was easy to learn the new vocab and expressions. Impressing your partner by ordering a meal in French could be just the starting goal you need – and you can build from there.
3. Personality makes a difference
Knowing whether you’re an extravert or an intravert helps sort out what form of language learning works for you. Extraverts shine in conversation groups, but these may be challenging for someone who works best on their own. I remember an exercise in a French language school – I couldn’t cope with doing a joint creative writing exercise, for me this had to be a solo effort, but la prof insisted, I tried, and then it all ended in tears. When I let her know why the exercise was a problem, she was devastated – and I hope took this incident to heart in her future teaching roles.
4. Be prepared to sound like the village idiot
After years of intermittent progress I reached a turning point, rather like the crossing of the Rubicon. Previously I would open a conversation with ‘parlez vous Français’ and we would generally proceed in English. I realised it was fear, fear of sounding like the proverbial idiot, that was holding me back. And the only way to deal with this was head on. If I didn’t interact, if I wasn’t willing to initiate communication with French speakers, then I was truly wasting my very limited opportunities.
Now, if I hear someone speaking French, I’ll do everything I can to initiate a conversation. And I’ve found that rather than being treated like a village idiot, I’ve had some lovely conversations with delightful people who are equally interested in my experiences! In Paris, I was told ‘madame, vous avez un accent mignon’ (madam, you have a cute accent)!
I also plan for conversations in advance where new words are required.
5. Formal lessons help. But be selective.
Research your school and what it offers. Finding a school in France, often as part of a longer holiday can offer a great choice of options. A good resource is the www.fle.fr website (backed by the French government) which provides accreditation services for French language schools in France. The website offers helpful advice about what to look for when selecting your school, including accommodation with host families.
While group classes are the most cost-effective option available, don’t rule out supplementing your classes with some ‘cours particuliers’ (private lessons). There is nowhere to hide in a private class, so both your strengths and weaknesses are visible and can be worked on.
6. A good teacher will stretch you beyond your current capability.
As Pablo Picasso said ‘I always do the things I can’t do, that’s how I learn to do them’! Don’t be afraid to let your teacher know if you’re having problems. But do expect that confusion and misunderstanding is a normal and possibly deliberate outcome from good teaching!
7. Older learners (might) have special needs.
The only thing linguists agree on when it comes to older learners is that they usually don’t achieve the same level as those who start at a younger age. But the reasons for why this should be the case are not at all clear-cut. Explanations ranging from developmental biology through to loss of brain processing abilities (including memory) as we age are hotly debated in the literature. New evidence, much of it discovered by brain imaging of bilingual people of various ages, has established that learning and brain development can continue through to old age and research is ongoing to discover just what causes older people to struggle with learning languages.