Setting language-learning goals is crucial in determining whether you’ll succeed in your language-learning studies.
Most post-school language learners share the same goal of being able to converse with a native speaker of the language they’re learning.
Often, these learners feel this level of fluency is something they should be able to achieve in a few months, but this isn’t always possible.
When this goal isn’t achieved, we often hear it blamed on someone being too old to pick up a new language.
This blog will examine why it’s worth learning a foreign language and the process of getting there. We’ll also tackle the big question: does age matter when learning a new language?
But first of all, let’s look at the differences between studying, learning, and acquiring a language. These are important distinctions to be aware of before setting your own language learning goals.
- Studying: Studying is about gaining knowledge on a particular subject by reading about it in detail, attending classes, and memorizing important facts.
- Learning: Unlike studying, which unusually takes place in a formal setting, learning involves acquiring knowledge and gaining experience in both a formal and informal environment. This means learning can take place through real-world experiences.
- Acquiring a language: Acquiring a language occurs when children learn their first language. Although a complex task, children often make language acquisition seem easy. Acquiring a language includes learning to comprehend what others are saying in that language, along with producing words and sentences to communicate back.
For a more in-depth explanation of language acquisition, please check out this study by KN Tripathi and his associates published in 2020.
How much available time do you have?
When setting a language learning goal, it’s important to consider the amount of time you’re willing to dedicate toward reaching your goal.
This means figuring out whether it will take weeks, months, or years to learn your target language. Most of the time, as an adult, this will depend on your personal commitments.
To help you develop a timeline, we’ve broken down language-learning goals into three major categories to give you a better idea of the commitment required and what is involved in each.
1. The Academic Approach
The academic approach has been used by public and private schools. While it can result in conversational fluency, it’s not the quickest way to get there. However, this approach is exciting and can ignite fascinating conversations about the language.
For example, many learners are fascinated by the label verb, adverb, preposition, and object of the preposition.
One time, when chatting with a group of French natives, I enjoyed an exciting and riveting conversation about the French language.
The French can spend hours in deep conversation about how a word can and should be used in a conversation to convey a specific meaning.
The group also listened intently to anyone who weighed in with an opinion. I loved how my opinion was respectfully listened to, even though French was not my native language.
In this situation, I spoke French with native French speakers, but I’ve also had the privilege of being present in a similar conversation in English.
What’s included in the academic approach?
The academic approach often includes a comparative study of various syntaxes of the same idea in different languages. It may also include a vocabulary study focusing on the etymology of words in the English language.
Along with this, an analysis of the development of the English language from old English to modern English is often studied.
If you’ve read the original Declaration of Independence, you’ll notice several spellings that have since changed.
The same course of study can be done in French, Spanish, Italian, and more. Additionally, one can better understand verb tenses and how they work together over time to communicate an idea.
The academic approach to language study can be quicker than learning to comprehend and speak with native speakers. For some students, it can even be more rewarding.
This type of learning involves acquiring knowledge or observable facts and using critical thinking for conclusions or logical speculation.
With the academic approach, you can still engage with others interested in your target language. And although you’re not able to use the focus language, you’re still engaging your brain in critical thinking.
2. The grammar-translation approach
The grammar-translation approach can also be considered another academic approach to language learning.
Again, this approach can lead to conversation in the target language but can be challenging when trying to communicate.
For example, if you’re constantly trying to translate during a conversation, it slows down your understanding and takes you longer to contribute an answer.
However, today, many language learners and teachers firmly believe that the only way to learn and teach is through the grammar-translation method.
Although this method does require memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules, it’s helpful in certain situations and can assist language learning progress.
For instance, during World War I and II, languages were taught using grammar-translation.
This was a handy skill at the time, and although the method didn’t allow people to speak with or to each other, it helped decode and understand information.
What can you learn from translating?
For this blog, we’ll focus on translation as a hobby and an exercise in language that can teach us many things.
For example, translation teaches us:
- How different languages turn a sentence to communicate the same idea
- A country’s culture is reflected in how the concept is expressed.
In practising translation, it’s clear that words are not always in the same order in different languages.
This can spark interesting conversations about
- Why is something said the way it is?
- Does the sentence’s word order affect its meaning?
- Does the word order hold the exact weighted translation?
This study could be quicker than studying a language for communication.
I once taught a course in translation for grad students who needed to pass a test. The system focused on their ability to translate authentic documents in their field of study.
The course focused on high-frequency grammar and vocabulary. Exercises in grammar and translation were given, and my students took a university test at the end of the semester.
The course was in English, and the discussion was also in English. The study was quick and intense. This meant the goal could be met faster than learning to speak with a native speaker. This method also engages the brain and keeps it active and healthy.
3. The speaking the language Approach
The third and most common language goal is to converse with other speakers or, more specifically, native speakers.
I have dedicated my career to teaching this to students who have already developed critical learning skills.
This goal is challenging but attainable just the same.
As mentioned earlier, when a child makes the complex task of language learning look easy, it doesn’t make it any less complicated. It includes:
- Hours of repeated exposure
- Discernment of high-frequency sounds so that the language can be identified and responded to
- Association of sounds with what the child sees
- Developing the ability to bring a series of words together meaningfully to convey a comprehensible message
At The Language Learning Institute, our methodology mimics a baby’s process.
We emphasize critical listening to hear the new combinations of sounds that may not even exist in your primary language.
We use pictures with which to associate the foreign language words. Each new lesson starts with single words, progresses to short phrases, and then complete sentences.
As a baby learns a language, this happens over time and without much thought on the baby’s part. The baby’s brain is a clean slate, uncluttered and ready to receive new information.
For those of us no longer at that stage, we aren’t so lucky, and achieving successful language learning goals takes more intentional work.
Is age a factor in language learning success?
There are varying opinions about whether or not age is a determining factor in learning a second or third language.
An MIT study found that age does not impact the language-learning process and that anyone can become fluent in a new language at any age.
As stated in their research, MIT developed a quiz proving that learning languages as an adult can be achieved as easily as a child.
Although I agree with MIT that an adult can learn a second or third language at any age, I don’t believe it is as easy as they state.
Over my career, I have taught both children and adults. I found young children will go with the flow much more accessible than adults whose critical thinking skills are primarily developed.
Often, these critical thinking skills can get in the way of an adult’s ability to absorb a new language. But magic can happen when the adult learner can relax and rely on listening and hearing. They even amaze themselves with their progress.
I also prefer to align myself with science and the active part of the brain responsible for language.
The older a learner is, the more the emotional aspect of learning another language needs to be recognized. Occurrences include a hectic schedule with a lot on the brain and past failures that have left the learner feeling that they will never succeed.
Having many responsibilities can produce anxiety and worry that they won’t get tended to.
All of this can affect the amount of focused, dedicated time you have for learning a new language. My experience is that when working with adults, time must be spent addressing the emotional.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that, as teachers, we’ll become psychiatrists. Instead, these things must be considered when lessons are developed, and homework is given.
With all this considered, any adult willing to work hard and remain dedicated to their language goal can achieve it. It’s a journey worth taking, and I have seen people succeed first-hand. It all begins with a single step.
In this blog, we’ve become familiar with the correct definitions for the words to study, learn, and acquire a language – which will be a good foundation for setting your language goals.
It’s also clear how the academic approach to language study will allow for interesting conversations about language. At the same time, the translation approach can also produce a lot of interaction and opinion stating. Both goals will be enlightening from the point of view of knowledge and comparative study and can have relatively quick results.
Developing the ability to talk with native speakers is the goal that will take the longest to achieve but, once completed, will connect you to a whole new community, opening new learning opportunities.
This goal is best enjoyed when thought of as a journey, and you decide to enjoy each step and victory. And remember – you can learn a language at any age!
If you want to reach your learning goals, especially speaking, please check out The Language Learning Institute’s virtual live French and Spanish classes and interactive self-study programs.
Both programs are delivered in The Language Learning Institute Methodology developed by owner Nancy A Scarselletta. This methodology is designed to bring you through the different stages of language development, inspired by how a baby learns language.
The language learning routine focuses on speaking and listening comprehension, with reading and writing used for enforcement. If you find this blog helpful and interesting, please feel free to check out our language programs.
Would you like to talk more? Call us at 518-346-7096 or get in touch with us online.
Doug Kauffman, PhD, Language Acquisition definition In Alleydog.com’s online glossary, (n.d.)
KN Tripathi, A Review on Brain Mechanisms for Language Acquisition and Comprehension, second-language-acquisition, (2020)
ACTFL, Benefits of Language Learning, (n.d)
Katerina Karavasili, The Age Factor in Second Language Acquisition, (03/05/2017)
MIT, A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers, (2018)
Susan Blackmore: What Happens to Your Brain When You Learn a New Language, (n.d)
Daniel Merino, Co-host, The Conversation Weekly Podcast, Top of Form: 7 Reasons to Learn a Foreign Language, (17/12/ 2019)
Middlebury Language Schools, Why You Should Learn a Second Language and Gain New Skills, (12/05/ 2020)