The ways in which we learn languages are always at debate within the linguistic community. Some of the ideas put forth become unchangeable obstacles to learning. It is important to compare other aspects of learning that differ between adults and children, aspects that can be controlled by the adult learner. These would include motivation, time and objectives.
A child will often be motivated to learn through a natural curiosity, especially in the first years of life when everything is new and interesting. Everything catches a child’s attention and they don’t mind repeating experiences that they enjoy. This repetition reinforces the information they are learning.
Adults are motivated by more complex reasons, such as having to do business in the new language, or wanting to use it on vacation. Adults are more weathered and don’t always have the patience for the practice that is necessary to improve and use a second language.
Children don’t make their own time schedules. Time is divided up into study, sleep and regular daily activities like bathing or having meals. Study makes up a large part of a child’s day. Many children learn how to study and get better at it through years of practice and advice from teachers. Learning a foreign language is no different than learning math or science, it is another class to go to and learn in.
Adults often have lost the habit of studying. Because of work and family, adults can lack time. Keeping regular about study is especially difficult. Adults who attend regular classes have the advantage of this constant exposure to the language. However, scheduling time to do homework outside of class is often a real challenge.
School children have pretty clear objectives marked out for them as they learn. Exercises, quizzes and tests will mark stepping-stones in their progress. Sometimes knowing someone of their age who speaks the target language serves as a reason to study more, in addition to getting good grades.
Adult objectives will sometimes be less clear. They can range from wanting to meet other people through a language class to a real need to learn the language because of job needs. Scores on tests are pretty meaningless for adults who would rather see results, results that are at times hard to evaluate.
In order to improve in a language class, adult learners might consider the following attitudes:
- Be positive about why you are studying the language
- Keep your motivation in mind all the time
- Make time for study
- Be regular about your study times
- Make objectives you can reach
- Congratulate yourself when you have reached those objectives
Adult learners need to be careful with what they say about their language learning. Things said such as “I don’t speak well”, or “The grammar is very difficult for me” can be replaced with “I speak OK”, or “I’m starting to get the hang of this language after all!” These affirmations will help animate the adult learner.