Direct link: http://www.forbes.com/2010/07/27/learn-second-language-lifestyle-travel-study.html
How To Learn A Second Language
07.27.10, 4:30 PM ET
Italian cardinal Joseph Caspar Mezzofanti was said to have spoken more than 38 languages fluently at the time of his death in 1849, a skill that would have been imminently useful in today's globalized economy.
Unfortunately, most people nowadays have trouble recalling anything more complex than "Dónde está la biblioteca?" decades after their last high school Spanish lesson.
So we set out to uncover what's involved in learning a foreign language as an adult, which methods work best and how you can maintain your new exotic tongue once you've got it down.
Some advertisements would have prospective polyglots believe they're just a 15-minute audio tape away from becoming a U.N. interpreter. But experts say these get-fluent-fast programs are a complete sham. "There is no method that can do that," says Robert DeKeyser, a professor of second language acquisition at the University of Maryland. "The only way to learn a language is to make quite a bit of effort on a daily basis."
Programs designed to mimic the learning methods of children are also a waste of time and money, says DeKeyser. "You cannot expect to just absorb language the way that a child does," he says. "Children are good at learning the underlining system of all the language input they get because they can infer the underlying patterns without understanding the rules. Adults must be conscientious of the rules of the language. Their implicit learning doesn't work all that well."
Lisa Davidson, an associate professor of linguistics at New York University, says one major difference in the language learning process between adults and children involves interference from a native tongue. "When you're a kid all you're working at is acquiring a language, and you don't have anything to get in the way of that," she says. "When you're an adult and you already have a language, the one you already know filters sounds and you get substantial interference from it."
Before the age of one, infants are able to differentiate between sounds that their parents cannot (a notable example is the inability of native Japanese-speaking adults to distinguish between the "r" and "l" sounds). That ability can be reactivated with the proper amount of language input right up until puberty, a stage linguists refer to as the critical period.
And then comes adulthood, and with it many more hurdles.
Many experts agree that the ideal learning method for adults really depends on the individual. "Find the method that works for you and stick with it," says Richard Simcott, a polyglot who has professionally worked in over 14 languages at once for the British Foreign Service. "The main thing is to do a bit every day and to not get discouraged if you miss a day. If audio works for you, do audio. If it's classes, do classes. But find whatever it is and be consistent."
But not all adults are created equal. There are several factors that contribute to the success of one student over another. "First of all you need aptitude for language learning," says DeKeyser. "People vary in their aptitude like they do in learning math or in playing basketball."
These biological differences in aptitude do not mean that individuals with a knack for languages can just move to Japan and passively await fluency. "Motivation is a key part of learning a language," says Davidson. "The more time that you spend during the day speaking your second language, the better at it you're going to be."
Learning from multiple people is another key to success, especially when attempting to cultivate a native accent. "When you are exposed to a lot of people you get a much better sense of what the sound of a word is supposed to be," says Davidson. "You avoid exposing yourself to what could be idiosyncrasies in one individual's speech patterns."
Once an individual masters one language, experts say learning additional foreign tongues can be much easier for a number of reasons. Individuals with previous experience know what's involved in the learning process and are more adept at cultivating strategies for communicating with limited comprehension. "And no matter how different the two languages are, there are some sounds or words that can be carried over," says DeKeyser.
The tricks to maintaining foreign fluency are very similar to the methods used to achieve it--you have to practice.
"Maintaining a language is a matter of dedicating enough time to it," says DeKeyser. "You need to interact with native speakers. Make every possible effort to speak the learned language on a daily basis."
Simcott recommends continually challenging yourself even after you've reached fluency. "Sign up for political science or philosophy classes where you will be tested beyond asking things like 'how much is the bread?' This will help you understand the culture and the people infinitely better as well."