Have you ever met that guy that seems to learn new languages very fast or that child that is impressively bilingual? Well, there are actually 4 factors that influence how easily or not we can learn a new language. Let’s have a look into it and how we can make the learning process a bit easier.
There are four main factors that appear to influence our ability to learn a language:
- the brain
- the emotions
- the time
- the environment
Research shows that our brain’s unique wiring plays a role in the success of learning a second language. This means that cognitively there are people who have a tendency to learn a language with more success than others. However, we should go through a number of scientific tests to really understand if we are or not that kind of people with better brain connectivity for second languages. Solution: nothing really. This is something we cannot really control, let’s see what else we can do to make it easier.
The second factor regards emotions. Looking at the progress of all the students we have, one key factor in learning a new skill (in this case a language) is the emotion attached to it. Unfortunately, most of us have been forced to learn a second language in school, without really knowing the purpose of it and not receiving any positive emotions from the experience. I personally always felt very anxious about my next English exam or that test about Shakespeare literature, just to find out years later that my level of practical English was very low.
I remember going to a fast-food for the first time in the UK and the cashier asked me if I wanted to pay in cash or by card (not a hard question). Not understanding, I just replied “Yes”. And then you realize from the cashier’s face that the answer shouldn’t be just a yes. But I was very proficient in feeling the gaps with English words on the exercises. So why is that? No one had really taught me the practical language with passion or by making me laugh and enjoy the class. Unfortunately, this is also true for a lot of people.
Solution: simply put yourself in a calm state of mind and have fun while learning. Adults’ tendency to over-analyze or stress about their mistakes hinders their ability to pick up a foreign language resulting in slower results. This is probably why we put so much emphasis on having our students feeling relaxed while learning, and it simply works.
The third factor is time or, putting it in other words, consistency. This is when we feel super enthusiastic about learning a new language and then we abandon all the efforts after 2 months. Then, we have again a peak of motivation that is shortly followed by not practising for another month. This roller coaster of motivation slows down the learning process simply because our brain is like a muscle that has to be trained regularly. You might say: “Yes, but I always get so busy sometimes that I really cannot find the time”. Don’t worry you are not alone. Here you have another person like you struggling to find the time. That’s very understandable, but I would also argue that it is not really a question of time, but a question of enjoyment. Even if we have some spare time, we prefer to watch a movie or call a friend, instead of practising a language. And why is that? Because of the lack of enjoyment in the process. Let’s say that we are very motivated to learn a lot of words on a language app, but after the first period of excitement, that same app becomes boring, because we don’t get to speak the language with a native speaker and simply because an app can never replace a person who is able to transmit emotions.
Solution: plan with consistency to speak the language with someone. Book it in your calendar and above all, make sure that your partner is an enjoyable and patient person who knows the language. This will make you start a new routine and involving someone else in it will give you a sense of accountability.
What if we told you that your teacher would become one of your close friends? Then, you wouldn’t mind to have a language class because it would be like enjoying some time with a friend.
The last factor is the environment and this comes quite intuitively. Let’s say you go to South America for one month with the aim of learning a language. Probably you will learn more in that one month by actively being involved in the culture of your target language, than in months of learning from staying at home. But who has the time to go for one month in South America? Well, you don’t have to physically go there. Children with parents speaking two languages tend to grow to be bilingual because their environment puts them in a state of continuous learning. And they don’t have to travel to two places at the same time.
Solution: For normal people like us, grown in a family with just one language, the solution is to recreate a bit of that foreign environment in our houses by watching series, listening to music and reading some books in a different language.
Extra: a lot of students ask us if it is bad to put subtitles. Never feel bad about putting subtitles: there are other problems in life to worry about. Just enjoy what you are watching!
- our brain’s functional connectivity plays an important role in learning a second language;
- since we cannot control that, we should control the way we emotionally approach our second language. We should feel relaxed and attach a positive emotion to the learning process;
- take your calendar and plan with consistency some speaking sessions with a speaker of your target language. This will give you a sense of accountability and having someone else in the routine will motivate you when you will feel low on motivation.surround yourself with movies, music and books from your target language;
- never over-complicate things: relax and enjoy what you are doing.
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Research and reading material (nicely summarized in this article):