Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Musings of An Adult Language Learner

Musings of an adult woman - When you google something like “language learning boosts the brain” dozens of entries come up.

The technology for studying the brain has become quite advanced, so there seems to be some proof. But not everyone has the same experiences with the same results.

Here are some musings of mine about language learning.

Engagement is Key

For me, learning something new or getting better at an activity requires that I engage in doing it. If I don't, I don't progress. For example, I'm a skier and every year in November, I start my first run of the season thinking: “OK, weight on your lower ski, stay away from ice, avoid the moguls for now.”

During my first days on skis, I discover muscles I hadn't used for months, I get used to my edges again, I try out all kinds of turns. But, hey, by the end of ski season, I happily head for the moguls, and feel that I could follow Lindsay Vonn down a black diamond. Preferably in Austria.

Engagement with Italian

Something similar is happening with my Italian language skills. For a while, I didn't practice my Italian very much. I was too busy with work! But then I found a way to motivate myself to do a daily practice. 

What I do is read a daily article in an online newspaper and watch an episode of the soap opera Un posto al sole on my computer. Does this help to keep my brain fit? I think it does.

I particularly enjoy the articles by Roberto Gervaso. When I can read through one of his articles and get the meaning without looking up any words, I get a great feeling of pleasure and boost in confidence. This affects whatever else I do during that day.

The same happens when I understand what's going on in an episode of “Il posto al sole.” They speak fast and there's always some kind of underlying scheming going on.

I learned Italian from scratch as an adult adult. It didn't all come easy. For instance, it took me a couple of weeks to fully learn internalize the word “pomeriggio,” the Italian word for “afternoon.” With all the claims about how hard it is for adults to learn a language, I feel I've done well.

Engagement with Spanish

Emboldened by my success with Italian, I'm now learning Spanish. For obvious reasons, I am using our Spanish 1 course. The games make it fun.

In addition to the language games I use Twitter feeds for practice. When I'm ready, I'll start watching Spanish films. For now, my biggest challenge isn't learning new words, it's trying not to mix up Italian and Spanish. The two languages are similar and my comprehension of Spanish is good. But when I speak Spanish, Italian gets in the way.

But everyone's different. What about those who say they can't learn another language? That their efforts will probably fail because they're not skilled, too old, too busy, etc.? My answer to that brings me back to skiing.

"Row with the Oars you Have"

During this week, the ski area at Waterville Valley NH is hosting the National Adaptive Alpine Ski Races. I've been watching the skiers, many of them quite young, skiing through difficult race courses.

Each one of them has a physical challenge, perhaps a lost limb, spinal paralysis, an illness. Yet each one of them skis with such skill, that he or she way outshines the rest of us on the mountain.

The pleasure that these skiers radiate makes me appreciate the value of determination and the effort for overcoming challenges. As the Dutch say: “You must row with the oars that you have.” (Je moet roeien met de riemen die je hebt.)

So for language learning, the approach: “I've tried it once and it didn't work” – is not a good one. You've got to have passion, patience, and persistence. And you may find that your brain will thank you for it.