Yes, you can learn a language as an adult. I was already past my mid-thirties when I decided that I wanted to dominate the Spanish language. Whoa! Hold on there! That isn’t possible, so say the ‘linguistic experts.’ Only a child, according to these –inside the box experts– is able to dominate a language. Once you are past a certain age, it simply isn’t possible. Hogwash! It is possible, and as someone who has done so and is a Certified Spanish Medical Interpreter, I will tell you what you need to do. The ‘nitty gritty’ if you will. No, it is not easy, and yes you have to be determined, passionate and downright stubborn, but you can do it.
Let’s get to it, shall we? Oh, one more thing before we start. There will be those that disagree with my methods, and that is cool. I am not talking to them. I am talking to you; someone who really wants to speak a second language at a high level.
1. Start learning vocabulary. This is going to be your key component. I use Anki, a digital intelligent flashcard application to memorize and review thousands of terms. To this day I dedicate time to review vocabulary so that it is always fresh in my mind and ready to roll of the tongue when needed. Regardless of grammar rules, which is where most start learning, without the vocabulary nothing will make sense, so…vocabulary is the starting point of language learning, in my humble opinion.
2. Don’t read, listen to or entertain the idea that only a child is able to truly learn a second language. Put it in your mind that you can do this. Yes, you will get discouraged, and that is okay, but don’t stay there too long or you will lose momentum.
3. Be consistent. Every single day you have to practice without fail. It has to become part of your daily routine. Look at it this way. Do you ever take a day to not talk in your first language? I didn’t think so. Then, you can’t take a day off from your second language either. I have been doing this for over 25 years now and guess what? I still dedicate time every single day to perfecting my language skills. This is where your passion really comes into play. You will know language learning is a passion when you simply can’t go a day without it.
4. Listen to your second language as much as you can. This is, I am happy to say, where most of the language gurus and I are in agreement. Listen, listen and listen some more. Yes, you will not understand much at first, but keep listening. Get used to the sounds, intonations, and the melody of the language. That is really all you are doing at this point, so enjoy it. It will start to grow on you after some time. I promise.
5. Mimic what you hear. That is right, simply mimic the phrases. After a while, you will notice patterns. Pay careful attention to these patterns as you are actually learning the grammar without the boring part of cramming all of the rules in your head, which by the way will not help you dominate the language you are learning. Don’t believe me? Ask a child, any child, to explain to you the grammar rules of their language. The grammar police (I honestly think they exist in some form), will be able to tell you every grammar rule that you have broken, but not a child.
6. Memorize phrases. Start with something basic like –good morning, my name is_______. Just keep adding more and more phrases to your list. This really is how you learned your first language, you kept repeating what you heard and it got easier. Maybe at first you said ‘water’, and then ‘water please’ and eventually, ‘may I have a glass of water please.’ See, the trick is to start off with what makes sense to you and then keep expanding your knowledge.
7. Pronunciation –This is an area that most don’t focus on. I believe that it is a critical part of language learning, especially if your goal is to dominate the language. Pick a region, and a dialect and stick with it. With Spanish, for example, there are several variations –Spain, Argentina, Mexico, Peru, etc. You get the idea. Find one and that is the one you need to stick with for the duration of your learning journey. Once you have dominated the language, then you can play around with different pronunciation styles.
Let’s summarize, shall we? Start by memorizing vocabulary, and make sure you pronounce each word exactly as you hear it. You can do this by mimicking, remember? Do you remember how often you need to practice? That is right, every single day. I will give you a hint now that I will cover later. The more out of the day you use your second language, the better you will be able to speak it, read it and write it. Okay, back to the summary part. Where were we? Oh yea, listening. You need to spend several hours per day simply listening. I use podcasts, YouTube and Hulu. Now, you are ready to write out some simple phrases, that you will eventually make more and more complex. Are you ready to continue? Good, here is the next part.
8. Describe everything you see in your second language. It is best if you can do it out loud, however, sometimes I realize that isn’t possible, so a mental description is okay too. Take anything, regardless of what it is and describe it in detail. First, describe it in your first language. Take a table, for example. ‘I see a table that is shaped like a long rectangle, it has a top that looks like oak wood and it is supported by four metal legs. The legs are brown and there are rubber protectors underneath each leg to protect the floor.’ You can keep going. Think about it like this. A blind person is with you and asks you to describe something in as much detail as possible. You are going to be the eyes of this person, so don’t skimp on any detail. Now that you have done this in your first language, do the same in the language you are learning. What words do you not know? What details are you not able to describe?
9. Once you get really good at number 8 (well, really 1-8) you are ready to go for it. By the way, 1-8 is not a fast process. You actually have to take the time to really do each step well, like really well. How long will this take, you ask? Years to be honest. The time frame really depends on the time you are willing and able to dedicate each day. Okay, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of this step, speaking. You need to speak the language as much as possible. Hey, you have the vocabulary, you have memorized phrases, and you are able to describe in detail what you see, so you need to start speaking. But I can’t, you say. There is no one to practice with you say. Stop whining and just do it, okay? If you can speak in your first language then you can also speak in your second language. Have a conversation with yourself. I do all the time, and I must say that my conversations are very interesting. If, for example, you are thinking about a cup of coffee (want to guess what I am thinking about as I am writing this?) then say it out loud in your second language. You are simply forming habits and getting used to the idea of using the language.
10. Okay, so here is my final point. Use the language. Start replacing your first language with your second language as much as possible. Hint: Try to maintain at least 30 minutes non-stop in your second language, then slowly keep increasing the time until, eventually, you are able to remain 100% in your second language. Every time you feel the need to revert to your first language, stop yourself. Ask yourself why? Why do I need to go back into my first language? What am I missing? In most cases, it will be a vocabulary issue. Do you know every single word that exists in your first language? Probably not. What do you do when you don’t know a word in your native language? You look it up. You ask someone? You don’t, however, just stop talking and switch languages, so don’t just go back into your first language every time you get stuck. Force yourself to keep moving forward. And, most importantly, enjoy the journey.
You will become frustrated, and that is okay. Just don’t give up! Although I have never regretted my ‘formal’ Spanish studies, I realize that all of the experts that said I could/would never be able to dominate the language were simply thinking within their own little box. Once I shattered that box, I was able to become a Spanish speaker. You can do the same.
My next article, The Psychological Part of Language Learning, according to me, Spanish David.
Bio: David has studied the Spanish language for close to 25 years, studying extensively at schools in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Guatemala, and graduated (as an adult past 35 years of age) from Metropolitan State University, Colorado, with a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish. David is a Certified Spanish Medical Interpreter and uses his Spanish language skills to ensure precise and accurate communication between medical providers and patients.