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Learning a New Language at 40 and over

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You're Never Too Old to Learn a New Language

For many years I attempted to learn a new language. Admittedly, when I was in high school I took Spanish 1 and 2 as a requirement but never really learned how to use it in an every day conversation. But then, as I grew older I thought it would be fun and advantageous to be able to converse with co-workers who spoke Spanish. The problem was that I lived in America and I could not break the ethnocentric routine of speaking English. Several times I would try again. I tried to learn Spanish; then I tried to learn French; I even bought books on how to speak Japanese and Russian all to no avail. At age 40, my family and I moved to the distant land of Cambodia where they speak the beautiful tongue called Khmer (pronounced k'my) and it was in that place that I finally learned to read, write and speak a foreign language. Wow! What an accomplishment!

What about you? Have you always wanted to speak another language but couldn't get the knack of it? I am here to say that if did it, you can do it too. And, you don't need to go to a distant shore to make it happen. Yes, it does take a little extra discipline and you may have to get outside of your comfort zone, but I know without a shadow of a doubt that you can learn how to speak another language.

The Cambodian language is a phonetic language with an alphabet of nearly 90 characters to memorize. That is much more than Spanish or French or Russian; albeit much less than Chinese, Japanese or Korean. So if from the ages of 40 to 43, I could learn to read and write and speak a whole different language that utilizes nearly 90 characters, you can learn a new language too.

Khmer Consonants


Bonus Tip: Duolingo & Google Translate

There is now a wonderful app you can download to your phone that will help you learn a new language. The app is called "Duolingo." I recently subscribed to Duolingo and I am now learning Spanish and French. This software is very much like more professional programs like Rosetta Stone. It is not nearly as complete as such professional programs, but it can give you a good start towards mastering your first foreign language.

Another good app is Google Translate. With Google translate, you can dictate a sentence and it will give you a fairly good translation in a number of different languages. If the language is more well known (like French or Spanish or Mandarin), it will also have sound to help you with the pronunciation.

First: Find a Native Speaker as a Tutor

 The first step to learning a foreign language is to find a native speaker to be your tutor. The tutor should be very chauvanistic about their native tongue to the point that they will be brutally honest when you pronounce words incorrectly. They should not be shy about correcting you. In Asian countries it is usually culturally inappropriate to be direct because they don't want to bring the student dishonor, but I had a tutor who was young and idealistic and very straight forward which helped me tremendously.

Second: Drop Your Guard and Learn to Laugh at Yourself

In order to learn a new language, you must drop your guard and learn to laugh at yourself. One language teacher told me that it takes a million mistakes to learn a language fluently. Undoubtedly you will butcher the language and make a fool of yourself, so have fun with it and don't take yourself too seriously.

Age When You Last Learned a New Language

Third: Take an Extended Period to Merely Listen

The third step to learning a new language is to take an extended time to listen to it spoken before attempting to speak it yourself. Children usually take one to two years before they attempt to mimic words and phrases. In most American neighborhoods there are spots in town where folks from other language groups congregate and converse together. After you find your tutor, ask to tag along with them when they are with their family and friends just to sit and listen.

Fourth: Establish a Language Route

After you have listened to the language, ask your tutor to help you establish a language route amongst within their neighborhood. This is called the Brewster method. You have your teacher teach one or two phrases and then you go out on your route to practice what you learned.

Fifth: Use Full Sensory Learning

 Another tip for learning a new language is to use full sensory learning. This means that you have the tutor repeat commands that you perform while you listen and eventually repeat the words. When you couple actions with listening and speaking you are more apt to retain what you learned.

What language do you want to learn?

Sixth: Use Flash Cards to Match Actions with Context

 In this sixth step, you take a large piece of paper and draw pictures of every day places like a house, the grocery store, the mall, the post office, etc. and then draw flash cards representing pronouns like I, you, he, she, we and they. Next, you hold one of the flash cards next to a picture on the large paper and have the tutor say the corresponding phrase like "he is at the store," or "we are at the mall." For this to be effective, you have to listen a number of times, then listen and repeat; and finally, give the matching materials to the tutor and you speak the commands so that he or she can hold the right pronoun card with the right place. This technique comes from a program called PILOT which has many other such games too.

Seventh: Learn How to Read and Pronounce the Alphabet

 This may seem to be out of order but most children learn how to speak their native languages before they learn how to read them, Often the children learn colloquial or slang language before learning the proper way to pronounce words. But especially if the language is phonetic (meaning it is written how it sounds) learning how to read the native script can help with pronunciation. The Cambodian language (or Khmer) is very phonetic as is Spanish. When I learned how to read the language it helped my pronunciation tremendously.

These are some of the things that helped me learn a language after the age of 40. I had attempted to learn a language many times with no success but finally one day I was able to do it. You can too.


ecoggins (author) from Corona, California on June 02, 2011:

Go Gwen! you can definitely do it! Vik, thank you for your insights. There do seem to be different learning styles. Immersing one's self in the people group is a great help.

gwen on June 02, 2011:

thank you, I need the confidence boost. I've similarly tried to learn Spanish a few times and am trying again. I thought I was making great progress but I recently started to doubt that and even to wonder if, after 40, I could actually do this and get to a "beyond tourist" useful degree of fluency.

Vik Murty on May 23, 2011:

I have noticed several things - 1. Not everyone learns the same way and triple goes for languages. 2. The more in tune you are with your modus operandi for learning, the more successful you will be and more rapidly. 3. Knowing thyself may take exploration - certainly get examples like this... but I found for me, it is critical to understand the "formal structure and logic." So writing and learning phrases are better than "memorizing" things. I am just as certain there are other types of people. Lastly, and travel...

who cares on January 17, 2011:

I've started to learn English when I was around 30. Now, 13 years on, English has become part of my every day life. Since I "know" how to learn a language, I just listen to colloquial French and learn every other day a few new words. The more I listen to the spoken word, the easier it is for me to learn and retain new vocabulary.

ecoggins (author) from Corona, California on December 05, 2009:

Catherine thank you for your kind comment.

Catherine@WLT from Bangkok on December 04, 2009:

These are excellent tips for learning a foreign language (40+ or younger even).

deadly_zone on November 23, 2009:

Thank you very much, really it was helpful to me

suziecat7 from Asheville, NC on July 16, 2009:

I learned to speak Greek while living in Cyprus. Great Hub and now I'm a fan too.

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