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If one of your life goals has always been to learn a foreign language, you may be wondering how hard or easy it might be to achieve fluency.
You might also have heard some people say that it is “too late” to learn a language as an adult.
Many people believe that the best time for a person to learn a language is when they are still a child. So you could be wondering if you should still bother, if you can indeed still learn another language as an adult.
The short answer is, yes. While there is some truth to the idea that it is easier for children to learn languages, this does not mean that adults can’t learn and achieve fluency.
According to a study published in the journal Cognition in 2018, scientists from MIT found that if you began learning a language before turning 18 you have a better chance of gaining native-like mastery of the language. However, it was not impossible to achieve fluency at the ages of 20 and above.
The study found that a lot of “late learners” could eventually perform as well or even outperform “native speakers” in grammar quizzes.
These late learners could also do just as well as second-language learners who stated learning when they were children.
So how did this come about?
How do adults learn a second language well enough to be considered the equal of native speakers?
Well, first, let’s take a closer look at what we mean by “fluent”
It is possible for adults to become fluent in another language, but their level of fluency, how proficient they are in that language may vary.
Native level fluency, or native proficiency as defined by the United States Department of State, means that you can speak as well as an educated native speaker.
This is something that you can only really achieve by living for a long time among native speakers.
So, if you want to achieve native language fluency, the key is to truly immerse yourself in the language.
Living in an area where you will be exposed to the language everyday and have to use your language skills constantly,
For most language learners, however, the goal is actually professional proficiency.
The State Department divides “Professional proficiency” into two levels, minimum and full.
Minimum professional proficiency means that you can speak the language well enough to participate in formal or informal conversations about practical, social or professional topics.
You should also be able to at least read a newspaper. Full professional proficiency means that you can use language and read it in a way that is “pertinent to professional needs.”
So, looking at these definitions, it would seem that what we actually mean when we think “fluent” is professional proficiency. To be able to communicate with and make ourselves understood among native speakers.
There’s also another level of fluency that we should look at, this is the most basic level, the ability to use a few phrases and understand enough to “get around”.
Elementary proficiency is considered the “lowest” form of proficiency and it means that you can speak enough basic phrases to make your basic needs understood and can read enough to understand place names, street signs, shop signs, and numbers. So a “tourist” level of proficiency.
In the end, the level of fluency that you can achieve depends on how much you were exposed to the language and how long you studied it.
Believe it or not adults learn a second language the same way that children do, through constant exposure to a language. Both adults and children need to constantly hear a language spoken in order to pick it up.
It’s not just enough, however, to just hear the language. You also need someone to explain the language to you and correct how you use it.
In children, this correction is usually initially received from family members then enhanced when the child starts to receive formal schooling. For adults, this is why it is important to take language lessons.
According to the MIT study, one reason why it might be easier for children to pick up a language – specifically a second language – is that they have more time to be exposed to it.
A child raised in a country where bilingualism is encouraged will be exposed to one language at home, but in school might be required to take several hours of language lessons in another language at school.
The regular schedule or exposure to another language in a classroom setting helps children pick up the language quicker than an adult who might just hear another language sporadically.
Going back to the MIT study, as we said, some adult second languages were able to score just as high in grammar quizzes as adult native speakers.
One common factor among the high-scoring second language speakers is they had been studying the language for a long time, which meant they had been exposed for a long time.
The highest scorers among the second language learners had 7-8 years of exposure to the language.
7-8 years? You might say that’s too hard or too long!
But, as we pointed out, native language fluency is not really the most important thing to strive for and, according to the study; you can actually achieve a good level of fluency after a year of studying.
Among the adults tested, many people who had been studying a language for a year were already capable of getting 80 to 85 percent of the quizzes correctly.
Constant exposure is important to enable you to really absorb the nuances of a language and learn how to use it.
The best way to make sure that you are constantly exposed to a language is to set aside portions of your day or week to study that language.
As we mentioned, one reason that a child who is learning a second language in school learns quicker than an adult is because they have several hours a day where they are exposed to a language.
They have regular, scheduled periods where they have to think, speak, and use the language.
For adults to get the same amount of exposure to a language, they need to also put aside time to study it.
It’s not enough to just look at a phrase book when you feel like it or pop in a foreign language film every now and then.
Fluency isn’t just about knowing a few phrases or knowing the meaning of 1,000 vocabulary words, it’s being able to use those phrases and words to make yourself understood.
In order to use a language, you need to know the rules of grammar – how to properly string words together to convey a particular though.
You also need to understand what these words mean when they are said to you.
The only way to really understand how a language is used is to have someone explain the rules and show you, by example, the proper ways of speaking and writing.
This is why you need to take lessons – be it in a classroom or with a native language tutor.
It is impossible to achieve fluency without putting in the work, really taking the time to memorize vocabulary words and practice how to conjugate words or properly construct sentences. While “serious” study of a language is important, don’t forget that it’s not the only way to learn.
There are a variety of ways to expose yourself to a language to supplement your “formal” lessons. You can listen to podcasts, watch YouTube videos, listen to music, or watch films and TV series in that language.
Try to use these alternative learning methods as a supplement to your language learning lessons. They can provide you with an alternative to the “dull” work of memorizing words and grammar rules.
Keeping motivated is important and using these more “entertaining” learning methods can help keep you motivated by keeping things fun and interesting.
Watching a film about the beauties of a country or listening to the rhythms of a ballad in another language can remind you of why you were so interested in a language in the first place.
Native level fluency may sound like a cool thing to achieve, but it isn’t necessarily an important goal for language learners.
The most important reason to learn a language is in order to communicate with other people.
As long as you learn enough to be able to hold your own in conversations with native speakers, you can say that you have achieved a good level of fluency.
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