5 Tricks for Learning a New Language as an Adult

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Children can pick up new languages like it’s no big deal, but adults have to really work to get even the basics. While it may seem daunting, it’s not impossible to learn a new language as an adult. Here are some tricks to make it easier.


When you’re learning a new language, everything you interact with is a chance to learn or practice a word. Give yourself lots of opportunities in your daily life to get a new word down. Label the objects in your home or office with sticky notes. Change the names of contacts in your phone to include the name of their relation to you (mother, father, roommate, boss, sister) so you will see that vocabulary on your screen when they text you. Make yourself say the name of everything you eat before you eat it. You’ll be surprised by how quickly your vocabulary will grow.


Knowing individual words is a good first step, but it’s often better to learn commonly used sentences or phrases. Once you have a full sentence down, you will know how to create similarly structured sentences by simply swapping out nouns and verbs. For example, if you’ve got a base sentence memorized like “I would have bought the eggs, but they were broken” you only need to change the nouns and verbs to get similar sentences like “I would have read the book, but it was too long” or “I would have worn my blue sweater, but it was torn.”


You must engage in conversations with fluent speakers to really get the hang of speaking on the fly. Luckily, most of the conversations we have in our daily life are pretty predictable. If you are traveling, people are likely to ask you “where are you from?” and “how do you like it here?” If you are ordering at a restaurant, the script is even more constrained. If you have a few whole dialogues ready, you’ll be better prepared to both speak and understand. Even if the conversation veers away from the set dialogue, if you get a few good back-and-forth turns in, it will increase your confidence and help you relax.


Give yourself some time to just absorb the language in the atmosphere without concentrating or worrying about whether you understand or not. Put on the radio in the target language while you’re doing other tasks. Watch movies with subtitles. Read a book in the target language out loud without trying to understand the text. Our language-learning brains are brilliant pattern recognizers, and there are patterns in language that we can absorb through simple exposure.


New speakers are naturally impatient to get to the full adult competence they enjoy in their own native language. But that can wait. If you start out by restricting your domain of competence to one thing at a time, you will have less frustration about the things you can’t yet do. Join a cooking class in the language and just learn to talk about cooking. Dig into your family history in the language and focus only on being able to talk about that history. Or even simpler, give yourself tasks to master like “ask for what I need at a hardware store” or “tell my co-worker about a good place for a weekend trip.” Before you know it, you’ll be more confident and ready to branch out.

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