REFRESH

Three Tips To Make Learning A Second Language Easier

Plus why kids are better at it than adults.

03/11/2017 7:15 PM AEDT | Updated 03/11/2017 7:20 PM AEDT
chameleonseye via Getty Images
Anyone can do it.

Learning a second language is no easy task.

A lot of time and dedication is required, plus there is a significant amount of memorising of words and phrases. And even once you've learnt those, it takes both skill and confidence to use them in a real-life setting.

Well, Associate Professor Evan Kidd from the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language says that anyone can learn a new language as long as they put enough time into the process.

"I think that almost anyone, if they give it a good enough shot, is going to have some abilities in a language with enough exposure and time," Kidd told HuffPost Australia.

According to Kidd, one of the biggest challenges adults face when learning a new language is approaching it with the knowledge of their mother tongue. Our brains are finely tuned to our first language and so we approach any new linguistic situation within the framework of that first language.

"The challenge in learning a second language is the fact that you have a first language," Kidd said. "Part of that is you are coming to your second language with knowledge of your first language."

So, what are some ways that we can make the language-learning process easier?

Three ways to make learning a new language easier

Use stock phrases

Learning a few generic and adaptable phrases in a new language can make it easier to use and also give you a template to build other terms using that same formula.

"It's good to have a few stock phrases because then you can start strapping off from those so you can say -- 'OK I have got this phrase and I can put different verbs in it and different nouns in it', which is actually how young kids tend to learn," Kidd said.

Memorise

When you first start out, learning the basic grammar and vocabulary of any language is going to require time to create a solid linguistic foundation. This means a lot of dedication to learning the words and making an effort to remember those through practice.

"Inevitably, there are going to be instances where you are just going to need to memorise the rule because, let's face it, languages are weird entities."

Actually speak the language

Kidd said that in his experience, one of the most important things when learning a new language is making the effort to use it as much as possible.

"It's all fine and good to sit there and learn it and then do in a class, but you really have to talk and I think by virtue of talking that's when you really start to get much more sense that this is a communicative system and you really want to use that to communicate."

"[It's a] combination between memorisation and a little bit of 'extraversion' and having a go."

Children are exposed to languages at a very young age, even from the time they are in the womb. The process of acquiring language begins with sounds and language rhythms and eventually builds up to words and sentences.

"One of the cool things about infants when they are born is they have the ability to perceive the difference between any sound that the human vocal tract can make, and the thing is that any one language will only use a subset of those sounds," Kidd said.

An interesting example of how this works can be found when the English and Japanese languages are compared.

"In English we have a distinction between the 'R' sound and the 'L' sound but in Japanese they don't have that distinction -- they've got one which is between these two sounds," Kidd explained.

"So, what happens when a Japanese infant is born is that they can distinguish between the 'R' and 'L' sounds but once they get to about 12 months they can't do it anymore and that is because their language doesn't have it."

Getty Images/Moment RF
Children under 12 months can identify every sound a human voice tract can make.

As humans lose this ability around the age of 12 months, we become unable to accurately distinguish some sounds that our mother tongue doesn't use. It's in this way that learning a first and a second language is fundamentally different.

Most of us can't remember learning our first language because it was effortless and occurred over a long period of time, but acquiring that second one requires a lot of hard work.

"I guess what the one distinction between a first language and second language is that first language acquisition is really implicit and a second language can be more explicit."

The explicit nature of learning a second language means that we are very aware of how much energy and dedication it takes to be able to speak any language well. Kidd says that being as confident as possible with another language could be the gateway to your success.

"Let's face it, there is nothing more humbling than learning a second language and using it because you just revert to [being] a two-year-old."

More On This Topic