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I tend to get pretty frustrated with language-learning programs that insist you can learn a second language “just like you learned as a child!”  We all think that learning our first language was easy as pie; after all, we don’t remember the effort it took, and we’re all perfect at it now.  And let’s face it: learning a second language is hard.  And it takes lots of work.  So who wouldn’t want a method that promises effortless, perfect acquisition?

There are a lot of problems with these claims.  The first was very aptly put in this fantastic review of a certain language-learning software program – specifically, that no language learning method actually provides the true immersion experience we got as children with our first language, and even if it did, the learner would have to be “content to study the language all day every day for seven years and end up with a second-grade vocabulary and second-grade reading skills.”  (You should really go read this whole thing, there are so many perfectly stated points in it.)  By and large, adult learners are hoping for something more.  They’re hoping to achieve an adult level in their target language.  I would argue that, while this is of course ambitious, adults are actually uniquely positioned to achieve such a goal precisely because they are adults.

H.D. Brown’s Principles of Language Learning and Teaching[i] put it in a way that made me go “a-ha!” When you talk about first language vs. second language acquisition in these contexts, you’re usually actually talking about two different variables: age (child vs. adult) and language (first vs. second).  If we’re going to be good scientists, we know that we can only manipulate one variable to make a reasonable comparison.  In other words, it makes sense to talk about child second vs. adult second language acquisition, or child first vs. child second language acquisition, but child first vs. adult second is not a reasonable comparison to make.  And that’s precisely the analogy that people make all the time.

So let’s take the better analogy: child second language acquisition vs. adult second language acquisition.  When we compare these two, we find that children are better at some things while adults are better at others.  Children tend to be less inhibited and less afraid of making mistakes, which are wonderful traits for a language learner to have.  But adults are much more cognizant of their own learning styles and strategies, much more able to see patterns and use learning tools, much more able to make logical comparisons and conclusions.  To put that in another way…adults are generally smarter than children.  Shocking, right?

I’m not trying to call out any particular learning method.  I think whatever works for you is what works for you, and no one should insist otherwise.  But that’s precisely the point.  You’re an adult learner, so you can do adult things like understand what works for you, make reasoned decisions, pursue languages that interest you, and achieve remarkable success through hard work and targeted practice.  It’s good to learn like an adult!

[i] Brown, H. D. (2007). Principles of language learning and teaching (5th ed.).  White Plains, NY: Pearson.