The process of learning another language is an undertaking. As with many other tasks, there is the hope that a shortcut might be found, a magic pill. Just like with most valuable endeavors, there is a process involved. There are also many myths surrounding language learning in general and in particular when it comes to adults learning a new language. I would like to address three of these myths.
Myth No. 1: Children are more able to learn language than adults. I can’t learn. I’m too old. This is simply not true. Consider the following:
• Children need less complex language to be considered communicative.
• Many claims that children are better language learners comes from research on first language acquisition.
• Adults and adolescents can enjoy more success in acquiring new languages in all aspects except perhaps pronunciation because they already have an understanding of how language works.
Myth No. 2: I just need to go there. An immersion experience can be extremely valuable to language acquisition (and one could argue that it is imperative); unfortunately, it does not get you out of the process of learning the language. The language will not magically start pouring out of your mouth simply because you have a passport and purchased an airline ticket. There is no way to avoid learning how to put phrases and sentences together in the language. The more proficiency that you gain in the language before your journey, the more likely you are to make even greater strides towards your communicative goals in country.
Myth No. 3: I took Spanish in high school, and I don’t remember anything. I guess I can’t learn. I remember nothing; I mean nothing, from my high school algebra classes because I haven’t tried to use algebra for many years. I am confident, though, that if I studied and practiced the concepts, I would regain a grasp on algebra which would in turn position me to continue to increase my math proficiency.
Language proficiency should be viewed on a continuum. At the lowest end of the continuum is using words and phrases, and at the other end of the continuum is a speaker who can express complex critical thoughts in strings of carefully constructed paragraphs. These superior speakers can also present and support both concrete and abstract arguments on complex issues. Some speakers never acquire the ability to use language in such a way in their native language. From the first moments of learning a second language, a speaker is somewhere on the proficiency continuum.
My suggestions for a successful learning experience with a second (or third, fourth) language:
• Avoid the magic pill conundrum. There isn’t a magic pill.
• Make a commitment to yourself just as you would if training for a marathon.
• Understand that this is a process. You are on the proficiency continuum, and to make progress takes time and commitment.
• Acquire as much language as you can before an immersion experience.
Colorado Mountain College, Edwards campus, is launching a Spanish Proficiency Program which is designed to encourage both personal and professional growth through a series of courses that take students through the process of gaining real proficiency in the Spanish language. Registration for Fall 2014 class is under way. Classes begin the week of Aug. 25.
Associate professor of Spanish, Colorado Mountain College, Edwards campus.