After watching this talk I feel a little depressed about the graph on the ability of adults to aquire a second language. I also feel that so many of us native English speakers are increasingly going to be disadvantaged in a multilingual global environment.

Q: Can anyone comment about their experiences learning a second language in adulthood?



    • Brett

    • 13 years ago


    I learnt my second language at the age of 20. For 4 hard years, I studied Indonesian at University. I also lived in Indonesia for 2 years. As a teacher who studied languages and ESL, I have read theories about the difficulty of learning a second language at a later age.

    At 20, my brain may still have been maliable enough to learn quickly (don’t say Indonesian is an easier language. Research will disagree with you – this isn’t the topic anyway). What I definitely felt was that if there is an enviroment suitable for language learning, one will learn. My Indonesian exploded from living in the country itself. If I didn’t live there, I wouldn’t have learnt as much.

    This goes for my next language Japanese and now my fourth language, Korean. I am now 36 and feel that without motivation and meaningful exchanges, I will not learn to the extent I am capable. Yes, some people are cognitively able to grasp a language faster than others and I may be one of them. However, I also feel really motivated to learn and a desire to communicate and experience other cultures.

    In order for me to really learn and improve Korean, I will have to go back there and live. I have been learning for a few years in Australia. My wife is Korean. But, by living in an environment that doesn’t fully support my learning of Korean (ie. being able to use it inately everyday and being immersed in the language) my imoprovement isn’t as much as I would like.

    I don’t feel it has anything to do with age.

    As for the ideal time to learn a second language, I still firmly believe it is anytime and at any age. We may not be able to learn as quick as the youngun’s but with motivation and meaningful interactions, learning will still occur.

    Contact me in another few years to see how I am going with my Korean 🙂


    (typed, but not proofed).

    1. Brett, I agree with you on the need for immersion and a passion for learning. But those, again, are “adult” traits. Children, especially babies, will learn without even thinking about it…which to me makes it “easier”. I too spent a lot of time and effort learning Portuguese, the greatest tool I had was living in the culture.

      I taught for 3 years in an international school where we accepted students who had minimal language skills. It was obvious that those student who entered our school after about 2nd grade were at a disadvantage for most of their time, simply because of the inability to truly master the language. My personal observations is that children must have a firm grasp of the language by 2nd grade or they will only ever speak a 2nd (or 3rd…) language.

      I also agree with you that learning a 3rd and 4th language is much easier than learning a 2nd. I believe there is plenty of research backing that up in both cognitive and neuro science. (sorry don’t have any links…)

  1. Let me first point out that your blog was posted on Wed. February 16th, and I am responding on Tuesday, February 15th. Isn’t the Internet amazing =)

    I moved to Brazil when I was 23 years old. I had never heard or spoken Portuguese prior to moving there. We moved there at the same time as a few other American families who had children ranging in ages from 18 months to 13 years old. It was amazing to see the difference in learning between all of us. Even as the youngest adults, we learned significantly faster than adults in their 40s (maybe I hadn’t finished puberty yet like she said…haha).

    She stated the facts plainly, everyone agrees language learning must happen early in order to be a true “native” speaker. I would say I became a “proficient” speak, able to carry on daily business, pay bills, read the newspaper (mostly), and converse with neighbors.

    Her study with the TV was interesting, because the two hardest things for me were speaking on the telephone and watching TV. Both removed the personal connection during conversation, and I lost all sorts of context clues.

    Thanks for posting the video, you sent me down memory lane for a bit. I am going to go skype with some of my Brazilian friends now…

  2. I would just like to point out that what the speaker is mapping is not total language, but simply the acquisition of the phonemes of one or two languages. She is giving us a neurological view of what has been known for quite some time, and that is that for most individuals there is a critical period for learning to sound like a native-speaker when speaking a second language.
    However, it is also important to point out that although some people refer to young children as the “best” second language learners, children only have to learn enough language to communicate about things that are important to a child. Such claims are also often referring to listening and speaking skills.
    On the other hand, adults or older children learning an L2, have the advantage of already knowing more about how to interact in social situations and of being literate. They have a larger knowledge repertoire to rely on for learning, but they also have a lot more to learn since as adults they need to be able to discuss economic, social and political issues in addition to common social interaction.
    That said, you asked about personal L2 experiences. I am a native-English speaker who is quite fluent in Spanish. I was an exchange student to Colombia for a summer, then studied Spanish in both high school and college. Then I married a Spanish-speaker and moved to Mexico for 9 years. I now live in the States and can act as an interpreter for the school systems. I will always have a slight accent, but have little trouble communicating.

      • Trevor Collazo

      • 13 years ago

      I agree as well. Adults also have the luxury of recognizing cognates…at least with romance and Germanic languages. Knowing cognates rules increase your vocabulary by 2000+ words automatically. That is where “older” leathers have an advantage.

    • Dianne McKenzie

    • 13 years ago

    Having lived in HK for nearly 17 years of my adult life I have failed to learn the language, well. I can understabd basic conversation, but i cannot write, read or speak it very well, well, not at all. A few words or phrases is all. But, 5 days in France i knew more french than cantonese, and 3 days in macau i also knew more portugese than cantonese, a week in vietnam and the same thing happened. Whenever I have a few weeks in different countries and wherever i could make sense from the written word i could learn the language. I can’t connect with the chinese language. I am a visual learner, and i need to be able to make connections from my previous learning to learn something new. I can’t seem to be able to do this with cantonese. It also doesn’ t help when everything is bilingual with english. I do not HAVE to learn the language to survive.

    The students at our school come from over 40 different countries, with most having at least two languages proficiently mastered. I feel quite inadequate.

    • Darcy Moore

    • 13 years ago

    Thanks Dianne, Maryanne, Trevor and Brett for your insights, they are much appreciated.

  3. I ‘spent’, quite literally, 6 years of my life acquiring a second language. I knew nothing but English aged 19. Via 5 years at Uni plus 1 year in Paris I learnt French. It is possible to learn a language as an adult, it just takes endless, endless hours of hard work.

    Very interesting to think about what babies and children can do that adults can’t, and vice versa. When I think of my childhood, I have to ask if that was really me. Where is the continuity? Are we the same people? Or iterations? Or what? Very bizarre, the way time moves on like a wave, and we’re conscious only at the crest.

      • Darcy Moore

      • 13 years ago

      6 years well spent IMHO and a nice. poetic thought, at the crest, Steve. I think we are ‘the sum of our memories’, at the very least.

      1. Like a game of snake…

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