In a earlier post, Beyond Learning Language like a Child, I reviewed some of the reasons why adults can't learn a second language like a child.
Adults have to use different strategies and methods than children, but as second language learners all over the world prove: You CAN learn a second language as an adult!
A Second Language For You?
The many benefits of learning another language are well-documented. But adults also have strong reasons for deciding against becoming bi- or multilingual. The reasons English speakers most often use, include:
- I do not need to speak second language.
- I can get along with my English well enough when traveling.
- I am not good at learning a second language.
- I don't have time to learn a second language.
What about those adults who began learning a second language, or even continued with a language they had leaned in school, but then stopped?
Why did they give up?
I recently came across this question on Quora from 2012: “What is the success rate of learning a foreign language in the world?” You can find three thought-provoking answers HERE.
I have not been able to find any other credible statistics for the U.S. or other countries than those mentioned in the answers to the above Quora question.
A recent Pew Research report looked at the foreign language requirements in Europe.
While the anecdotal evidence may point to higher success rates in European countries than in the U.S., the question remains:
Why do so many adults give up on learning a second or third language, even one they learned for several years during school or college?
And what about the astronomical failure rates of students enrolled in language courses, including those subscribing to online programs?
I believe there are three (3) main reasons why adults give up on learning a language:
The “Adabei” Effect - or: No True Reason or Need
There is a wonderful expression in the Austrian/Bavarian dialect for a person who also wants to be part of a peer group. The dialect word is “Adabei,” which in standard German means “auch dabei” (also with it).
In the context of language learning, an “Adabei” would be someone who wants to speak a certain foreign language because his or her friends say it's the “in thing” to do.
A desire to be or do “like the others” can indeed be a strong initial motivator. But it may also be short-lived, once the excitement fades and it becomes clear that substantial effort is required.
Years ago, it was fashionable to learn French, which was then replaced by Russian, and more recently by Mandarin Chinese and Arabic.
On the other hand, Spanish in the U.S. is certainly on the rise and may become not only an “in” language but also a very useful one to learn and speak.
By the same token, a person who lives in an immersion environment - as in a country or region where everybody else speaks another language - is not an “Adabei. ” Rather, such a person is someone who - out of necessity - quickly becomes a very motivated learner!
Marketing Promises and Unrealistic Expectations
Ubiquitous marketing promises, such as “Learn a language in 10 days,” “Learn a language like a Child,” "Guaranteed Success", etc. have raised expectations that many learners are unable to meet.
Such slogans are a symptom of our new technological world, promising instant, effortless results and gratification.
We don't even need to use keystrokes on our smartphone or tablet to immediately get the most esoteric information: We can just ask Siri for it! You can buy almost anything over the phone or web. Amazon will fill your order in a day or two.
Unfortunately, our desire for immediate and effortless results also produce high expectations. For learning a second language, these expectations often lead to disappointment and a sense of failure.
While nobody can learn a foreign language in 10 days, you CAN become fluent in 3 months – but only if that's your main focus during that time.
(In a 2014 post we looked at estimates of how long it takes to achieve mastery in a language.)
But for most learners, the fast and easy path to fluency is an unrealistic expectation.
My own experience is instructive here:
I have been learning Spanish for over a year now, regularly spending 10 to 30 minutes a day with GamesforLanguage, Duolingo, and Babbel courses. I've got good basic listening comprehension and can read quite well.
Since our one-month stay in Sevilla in March 2015, I can also participate in simple conversations (especially when I prepare for them). While I don't speak Spanish fluently yet, I know that I will get there with more conversation practice.
I've also been learning Dutch for several months now, first with Duolingo, and since early June also with Babbel, spending 20 to 30 minutes every day. I don't expect to be fluent, but hope that by the end of August, I'll have made enough progress to understand some Dutch conversations (see my earlier post).
And to put things in context: I'm not a language learning beginner, but speak three languages fluently.
No Long-Term Plan
If you don't have a compelling NEED to learn another language, and no long-term plan that suits your lifestyle and time commitments, then your learning effort made indeed falter soon.
True, classroom or online courses can be a great start for learning a second language.
But unless they are high-intensity, immersion-type courses - such as the Defense Language Institute, Concordia Language Villages, Middlebury Language Schools in the US, and many other schools worldwide offer - even a daily one-hour class, 3 to 5 days a week for several semesters won't make you fluent. Many school and college students experience that fact.
And not everybody is able to follow Benny Lewis' Fluent in 3 Months time-intensive prescriptions. However, his Speak in a Week Free language course may be just the encouragement you need to get started. (And no, you won't be speaking fluently after a week!)
“I have no time” is the excuse most frequently used. I suspect that it also hides the true reasons why someone abandons a language learning effort. Priorities change (see “Adabei” above), progress is too slow (because expectations are too high), or there's no long-term plan that integrates your learning into your daily life
Therefore, if you really want to acquire a second (or third) language, you should take a long view and first make a plan that takes into account your available time and resources:
Your learning style, time constraints, and financial means should guide you to select from the wide offerings of free and fee-based resources: online and classroom courses, online and personal tutors, apps and podcasts, library CDs and books, etc.
If you are really serious about learning another language, you have to supplement classroom or online courses with other activities: reading books, newspapers or online articles, listening to podcasts, watching movies, and, if fluency is your goal – having conversations in your new language.
Long-term Engagement: Turning Failure Into Success
Should you be reading this post and wondering whether to continue learning, think again how taking a long-term view could keep you going.
What could make learning fun? How could you incorporate some language learning into your daily life?
- A free Duolingo, GamesforLanguage lesson or Quick Game before breakfast?
- A Mindsnack game while waiting?
- A foreign Neflix movie at night? Or using your Chromecast to watch a foreign TV show?
- Listening to a podcast while exercising?
- Connecting up with a language partner online?
And, if your life is busy and you can't commit much time to learning another language now, adjusting your plan is still an option as well.
By keeping a long view and calibrating your learning effort to your current situation, you'll maintain your investment and can keep building on it again later on.
Bio: Peter Rettig is the co-founder of Gamesforlanguage.com. He is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and leave any comments with contact.