Adult language learners tend to feel a drive to “figure everything out.” They want a logical, systematic approach. Especially engineers, who make up 90% of our clients.
But this actually works against them.
Maturity, logic and knowledge are helpful in many things, of course. But sometimes, with language learning, it can impede you.
Instead, it’s more useful to think like a toddler. Seriously. Grab a juice box and a bowl of Goldfish and I’ll explain.
Be a Blank Slate
One reason that it’s challenging to learn a new language is that your native language is so strongly imprinted in your brain. You developed your idea of what language is based on the one you grew up speaking.
Starting to learn a new language can be pretty jarring. Grammar structure and syntax differ among languages — even similar ones. In both English and Spanish, for example, the typical order of how we say things is subject, then verb. But then you run into sentences like these in Spanish:
Me gusta = Me it is pleasing.
Te quiero = You I love.
Your notions about the way things “should” be in a language impede your learning and understanding of a second language. You’re trying to apply the rules you’re used to, but they don’t hold true anymore.
Kids don’t have this problem.
When you were born, you had the capacity to understand and learn any language. You didn’t have any preconceptions of how language should work. You just focused on listening to those around you and repeating what they said.
Of course, you can’t totally recapture this wide-open mindset. But it might help to remind yourself that the language rules you’re used to might not apply in the language you’re learning. And it will definitely help to focus on listening to what others say (and in what context) and repeating that. This will build true language fluency — the ability to understand, and be understood by, native speakers — a whole lot more effectively than trying to translate what you want to say from your native language to your second language.
When you were a baby, you started learning your first language by watching the mouths of those around you when they talked.
As it turns out, this is also a really good habit for adult language learners.
I’ll give you an example. I closely watch the mouths of native Spanish speakers when they say the “O” sound. That’s because similar sounds in my native language English — like the “O” sound in “goat” — are still not the same. The Spanish “O” is rounded and shorter, so I have to monitor myself constantly with this. Watching mouths helps me get better, and it’s improved my accent overall. After I started paying more attention to native Spanish speakers’ mouths, I began to get compliments like “Wow, your accent is great!” (Don’t get me wrong: I still don’t sound native. But I’ll take “great” any day!)
Another example: The “TH” sound in English (as in the word “think”) is very difficult for most people learning that language. This sound does not exist in many other languages, and even in English, these letters have two sounds, making it even more confusing (think versus that).
When I was teaching this sound to a client from Venezuela who was learning English, I noticed that her tongue was always in her mouth, creating the “T” sound as in “trouble.” It is impossible to make the “TH” sound as in “think” with your tongue in your mouth. Although she felt extremely uncomfortable sticking her tongue out, my client realized that she could easily make this sound by flicking her tongue out a little, and letting air pass between the tongue and teeth. By watching where my tongue was when I made the “TH” sound, she mastered it herself.
(Pro tip: If you feel self-conscious about watching the mouths of those around you, start by watching people’s mouths on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.)
Have Some Fun
We tend to assume that learning a new language means rigorous studying and hard work, which is what we experienced in our traditional English lessons in high school and college, filled with vocabulary lists and grammar drills.
But back when you were a little, acquiring your first language didn’t feel like work. While you were spellbound by a bedtime story, jamming to your favorite song or hanging out with your parents or other caregivers, your brain was using these activities to bolster your language skills. Language opened the door to all the cool things you wanted to do — learning a new game, making a friend at daycare, having somebody get your favorite toy so you could play with it.
That’s a pretty far cry from digging into a complicated Spanish grammar book, isn’t it?
You’ll have an easier time speaking a new language fluently if you take some inspiration from you how you learned your first one. Buy the books you love, whether that means mysteries or biographies, in the language you’re learning. Watch movies or TV series in that language. Join a sports team (or a running club, or a yoga class) with native speakers. Go to a meet-up or cultural event where you can practice your new language. When you do, remember that your focus isn’t on speaking perfectly. It’s on making connections with others.
Having fun with your new language is one of the most powerful ways to build your skills. Take it from someone who flunked out of Spanish in college but then became fluent by diving into books, movies and, mostly, making friends.
Learning a new language shouldn’t feel like joyless homework. I hope that this article has helped you reconnect with the curious and exuberant spirit you had when you acquired your native language. This is the spirit Fluency Corp brings to the language training with your employees. Come have fun with us as your companies improves communication – it all starts with a free consultation.