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How to Learn a Language as an Adult

The opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Classical Conversations and its leadership, staff, or communities. We are glad to provide a platform for discussion of ideas about classical Christian education in K-12 education and beyond, but publication is not an endorsement from Classical Conversations.

A few months ago, I began teaching myself Italian. I had dabbled in the language before, but had never seriously stepped on the gas pedal.

In order to force myself to learn Italian, I knew I would have to take drastic action. So, I volunteered to teach Italian. About thirty people have joined the class.

Do you remember the story of Odysseus and the Sirens? The Sirens were bad news. They were beautiful women with beautiful voices. They would gather on the rocky shores of Greek islands, and lure sailors into the rocks, and into certain death.

Odysseus wanted to listen to them. He wanted to hear their beautiful voices. No one had ever heard them before and lived to tell the story.

So, he ordered his men to tie him to the mast of the ship. He instructed them to put wax into their ears. They were to block out all sounds. He did not want them to hear the voices since he knew that they would turn the ship toward the rocks.

As they sailed past the rocks, Odysseus listened to the beautiful singing. He begged his men to release him. He begged them to turn the ship toward the rocks. They refused to do so. They sailed on toward home.

What does this have to do with Italian?

When you volunteer to teach something, you are committed. You are committed for at least a year. You have tied yourself to a mast. You are going to sail toward your goal, whether you like it or not. After all, you have told your students that you will be there. You have told them that you will teach them. You must show up. You cannot untie yourself from the mast, jump ship, and swim to shore. You are committed.

This is my ultimate secret. This is how I learn languages.

I am forty-three years old. Or forty-four. I can never remember these days. Either way, many people would say that I am too old to start learning a new language. It’s a common misconception.

When people find out what I do for a living, they often say to me, “I wish I had learned another language when I was young. Now, I am too old.”

Maybe not. I just started Italian. I fully expect to be fluent in Italian before my fiftieth birthday. But, that’s nothing.

Dr. Mary Hobson is one of my linguistic heroes. At the age of fifty-six, she started studying Russian. She received her PhD in Russian at seventy-four years of age. She became an award-winning translator.

The truth is, as we age, we become too busy to learn another language.

When we are kids, we are enrolled in school full time. We dedicate hours to study. Kids are “better” at learning languages, because they spend more time doing it.

I have taught foreign languages for years. I have taught children and adults. From experience, I can assure you, the adults are much more motivated. They are easier to teach. They see the value of learning another language. They understand the power that comes with words.

On the other hand, most of the children I have taught were not motivated. They wanted to go to the bathroom, to go outside to play, to eat lunch, to sit next to the cute girl, to pass notes, to throw paper airplanes, to create origami, to untie their shoes, argue, or whisper. During language class, they seemed to have one main goal: do something else.

In the end, children have an “easier” time learning languages because they spend more time learning languages. It’s simple math. If I spend five thousand hours practicing golf, and you spend one hundred hours practicing golf, chances are, I will be better at golf than you are.

While children are in school, most adults are working. While children are spending hours reading and learning, adults are busy making sure the bills are paid.

Children are “better” at languages because they are not as busy and burdened as adults.

I remind my students of this constantly. They smile and ignore me. Years later, they return. They tell me they should have listened. They ask me to teach them now, what they refused to learn then. These days, I just direct them to my website. I no longer offer local classes.

Opportunities close.

If you are reading this as an adult, be encouraged. You can learn a foreign language. Yes, even Latin.

If you are reading this as a student, be warned. Life gets busy. Now is your chance. Study hard. You will not regret it.

CATEGORIES: Classical Christian Education

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