Finding the adult-path to language learning

Contrary to some popular marketing slogans (“Learn a foreign language like a child”), adults cannot really do that.

Because they have already learned their native language and are able to read and write it, adults cannot acquire a foreign language like a child.

As adults, we have to take a different – our own – path for learning a new language.

For a starter, we should pay attention to our likes and dislikes.

In addition, being aware of HOW we learn can make learning interesting and ultimately quite effective.



Research on left brain (logical, verbal, auditory, sequential) and right brain functions (creative, visual, spatial, emotional) has been ongoing for decades, and new imaging techniques have greatly enhanced our knowledge of how the brain works.

It’s no mystery that learning a language involves many functions of the brain for everyone.

For example, we now also know, that new words are “encoded” in our brain and once they are “consolidated,” they start shifting from short-term to long-term memory.

Swiss researchers even found that you can enhance your vocabulary retention during sleep.

As adults, we learn a new language not just by listening, or decoding sounds (a left brain activity). In fact, kids don’t do that either. Much more is involved.

Small children don’t yet know how to read and write. Still, they pick up a lot of visual and other sensory clues from people (facial expressions, gestures, touch), their surroundings (objects, movement, smells, taste), or the context of a conversation (asking for food, looking for a toy, being involved in playing with others), etc.

A mental “text image” may start to play along, but only once kids have learned to read and write.

Because we live in a text-based world, wanting to know how a word “looks” (is spelled) is certainly part of an adult language learning path.


For example, when I was learning Chinese strictly through listening, I found myself imagining how the words would be spelled with western letters.

Without thinking about it, I used the “regular” German sound-letter system for this. The pronunciation of almost every German word can be derived from its spelling (which is not true for English nor for many other languages).

When not too long ago, I was learning Italian by just listening, I spontaneously (and erroneously) used French spelling to imagine how the Italian words are written.

I’ve come to realize that I best learn when I both hear and see a word or phrase in a foreign language.



Online language learning sites that include digital games are a perfect vehicle for structuring your own language learning.

Such sites have auditory (spoken language, sounds) and visual features (text, colors, images, design).

If you want to focus on a text, you can click on it several times to absorb it visually. If you want to focus on the sound, you can close your eyes or look away from the text.

You can puzzle over grammar structures – and to follow up, google a dictionary and grammar to double-check. Or you can let your brain figure out the grammar intuitively.

Don’t we all have an innate capacity to decode basic grammar?

Games add extra fun with kinesthetic elements (typing against the clock, clicking on moving images, etc).

You can rush through a game to simulate a rapid-fire conversation. Or you can linger on specific individual phrases or sentences.

You can skip some of the games or spend extra time with them.

In other words, even a structured language learning site gives you some choices.


It’s a mistake to think that you have to learn in any prescribed fashion.

Go ahead and learn a language at your own pace and in a way that keeps you motivated.

Language learning is not only more fun that way, but you’ll be also learning more effectively.

If you get stuck with a program or course that you find boring, you are very likely to stop soon.

But don’t give up. Look for something else. There are many online sites, programs, and tutors that will work for you.

Just try them out until you find the one that engages you and keeps you learning and practicing!

An earlier version of this post appeared on in 2011 under the title: How To Individualize Your Language Learning?

Ulrike Rettig is the co-founder of GamesforLanguage. She is a lifelong language learner, growing up in Austria, the Netherlands, and Canada. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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