As promised, the second part of learning a second language as an adult. The psychological component of cramming all that vocabulary into your head, along with grammar rules, idiomatic expressions, and what seems like the kitchen sink. You may be asking what psychological credentials I carry to talk to you about such a topic. Well, I must confess and be upfront that as far as a degree in psychology goes, nope I don’t have one. Oh, you are thinking, you must have studied psychology. I can say yes to this one. Yea! Many years ago I took a psychology class in college. Does that count? Probably not, however, what I can offer you is years of dedication and study that I have personally gone through –the good, the bad and the evil if you will.
Now that we have that part over with let’s continue, shall we? The most challenging part (I am sure you already know this if you are a language learner) is sounding like a fool when you try to speak in your second language. As adults, we are used to being in control. Being able to say something correctly to get our message across, and most importantly, being understood. With language learning our brain knows what to say –well, most of the time it knows—but the words just don’t come out right, so we sound like a two-year-old trying to ask for a glass of water. Thus, psychological part #1 –embarrassment.
There is work and well as home responsibilities. Our minds are already full of years of thoughts, learning, vocabulary and all in our native language. There just isn’t room to add a second language. Good news my friend, there is still plenty of room to add a second and even a third or fourth language. Others have done it, so why not you? Would you like to know why? I mean, would you want to know? Okay, here it is, psychological part #2 – fear.
As adults, we are supposed to be in control. I am not sure who came up with this crazy idea. However, we fear to do something that is out of our control. To this day I remember being on a local city bus, and another passenger asked the driver in Spanish which bus stop she needed to catch her next bus. There I sat understanding the entire conversation and was well prepared to step in and assist with my Spanish language skills. Did I? Well of course not. I sat there like a rabbit. What if I miss-pronounce a word? What if I mess up the grammar? Oh God, what if the passenger talks back to me and I don’t understand? I am sure you have been in a similar situation.
We probably should get to the next part, but sometimes it is fun to ramble. Okay, back to the psychological aspect of learning a language as an adult. Ready? Here goes, and I won’t make you wait. The mental part #3 –laziness. You might say, how dare you! I am anything but lazy. Yea, well, I thought the same thing until I was asked, “David, how much time per day do you spend in your second language?” Proudly, and with my head held high, I answered “at least an hour a day, and sometimes more.” I realized at that moment that although I thought I was the model language learner, it was nothing more than a fantasy in my mind. Yes, I was lazy.
Okay, you say, so far you haven’t given me a solution. I already know I get embarrassed, that I have fear and that I am lazy. Alright, let’s look at some of these areas with some specific tools you can use. First, though, I have a question for you. Do you get embarrassed speaking in your first language, your native tongue? If the answer is no, then you can speak your second language without embarrassment too. How? Start off by having conversations with yourself –in your second language. Yes, talk to yourself, and do it often. It is even more helpful if you do it out loud. By communicating with yourself your brain and ears become accustomed to you speaking a different language. In other words, you are playing tricks on your mind.
The second psychological barrier mentioned was fear, and we are mainly talking about the fear of speaking with others. With today’s technology, this is going to be an easy one for you to overcome. Go online and look for language partners. It is a great way to practice in a non-threatening environment. Also, is there a Toastmasters group in your area? Check them out! They offer excellent opportunities to overcome fears of public speaking. Here in Colorado, I was fortunate to be one of the founding members of El Puente Toastmasters Club –the only Spanish/English bilingual club in the state.
I saved the mental-laziness barrier for last, and it just so happens that it is the last one I had mentioned earlier. Remember? We had as #1 –embarrassment, #2 –fear and #3 –mental laziness. The amount of time you dedicate to your second language –on a daily basis– is what will advance you the fastest. We all, including me, give ourselves excuses. These, by the way, are very valid excuses. My family doesn’t speak the language I am learning. I don’t have anyone to practice with me. I am tired. The moon isn’t in the right position for optimal learning. When you say to yourself –NO MORE!, this is when you will start noticing a difference in your second language abilities.
The answer is quite simple, and the most difficult. You do it! You need to wake up in the morning and instead of doing whatever routine it is you do in your first language, change it to your second language. Maybe, like me, you like it quiet in the mornings with that first cup of coffee. Use this time to think about vocabulary, or how to express a thought or emotion. Just you, your coffee and your thoughts. With every action you do, mentally describe the operation. I am now getting dressed. I am putting on my blue dress-pants, I am putting on my black shoes. Again, you are merely playing psychological tricks to accustom your brain to thinking, acting and doing in a second language.
In closing, I will give you a challenge. Start off slow. Dedicate 30 minutes per day to operating (studying, talking, working on grammar, and so forth) in your second language. Do this for one week. In week number two, increase this to one hour per day. Oh, come on! You know you have an hour you can dedicate. Now, week number three you are going to devote two hours. Keep this up. Keep increasing your time. Let me now get an excuse out of the way –but I work all day, and everyone speaks…. I am sure that you get some break during the day (if you don’t, you are working at the wrong place). So utilize your break time to study flashcards, or listen to a podcast in your second language, or take a walk and identify everything you see in your second language. By the way, this is a great vocabulary building exercise.
Your overall goal and self-challenge are to continually increase the amount of time you are in your second language. Once you are at a 50/50 level (first language/second language), you are on your way to becoming genuinely bilingual. I did it, and so can you. Don’t let your embarrassment, fears or mental-laziness stop you.
David Martin Tucker, Certified Spanish Medical Interpreter, CHI™, or “Spanish David” as he is known, is a certified medical interpreter whose passion for Latin American culture and language is second only to his desire to become a voice for his Spanish speaking clients. Conveying more than words, David’s continuous thirst for knowledge thrusts him into the culture of his clients.
David is an honor’s graduate from the Southern California School of Interpreting’s Medical Interpreter Program and holds bachelor degrees in both Modern Languages (Spanish) and Business from Metropolitan State College of Denver and the University of Southern Indiana respectively.
A founding member of the El Puente Bilingual Toastmasters in Denver, David is also a contributor to the International Medical Interpreters Association (IMIA), the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (NCIHC), and is a member of the Colorado Rocky Mountain Health Care Patient Advisory Board.