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Why It’s Not Too Late to Start Now


I know adult language learning from the other side too. For 10 years I taught English to adults from many other countries. The same principles apply to learning any second language as an adult. It’s different from the carefree way children pick up a new language. Up to the age of about 13, it comes easily to their pliable little brains. Adult brains have already decided which language they’ll use. Any other must be painstakingly acquired by a tired mind that would much prefer watching a little TV tonight.

It’s not just that adults are past the optimum years for easily learning a foreign language. I believe adults have so many more fears about language learning than children do. They are afraid they don’t know enough. They are afraid to speak what they do know. They’re afraid of the large body of knowledge they believe they must master. They’re afraid they’re too old to learn.

All those fears, all that perfectionism, are in every adult learner. For that reason, when I taught English to adults, I really wasn’t teaching the past tense of verbs, though that might be the lesson in the text. I was teaching, “Listen to this joke, then tell it to your neighbor,” “Let’s do the hokey-pokey,” “Clap the rhythm of this sentence with me,” and eventually they learned the past tense of verbs in English. They had to be distracted from their fear and self-consciousness before they could learn.

But for all their fears, adult learners have courage and determination. It’s their great advantage. They’re afraid, and yet they plunge into the cold water. They’ve faced their fear and done something hard many times before in their life.

It’s gratifying to see the surprise and delight of people learning English when they succeed in communicating. I interview Spanish-speaking clients for a social service agency. “Do you speak English?” is my first question. Most say “no,” but if it seems they might have just a bit of English, I say, “Entonces, ¡hablamos inglés!” It’s wonderful to see them rise to the challenge. The formal atmosphere loosens up as we conduct our interview in a combination of their English and my Spanish. They are proud of themselves for their courage in giving it a try. They have had fun with their bad English.

I’m writing this blog because I believe you can enjoy right now the Spanish you have right now in your situation right now. You don’t need to wait for the day when you’ve taken another class or lost ten pounds or cleaned the garage. You need only to gather your courage and venture into the big Spanish-speaking world. Now, with what you know now. If you don’t start now to use your Spanish in real situations, you’ll never do it. This is it. Try it. After you say, “Buenos días,” attempt just one more sentence. Make a comment about the weather: “Hace mucho frio,” or “¿Hace calor, no?” I guarantee you’ll feel wonderfully alive.

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