How to learn a new language as an adult?

According to researcher Kirsi Wallinheimo (pictured), studying languages online is an efficient way to learn for adults.

Learning a language seems to be child’s play for children; and that's what it really is. But, what about adults? Kirsi Wallinheimo—who has studied adults’ language learning—says that it is true that children often learn fast. They remember words easily and have the courage to speak a foreign language without caring about mistakes. For them, the process is often natural, but even an adult language-learner has lots of benefits.

- Adults already have some kind of language proficiency in some language, and they build on it. Adults may need more time for learning, for instance, because rote-learning ability diminishes with age, which everybody who has played memory games with children knows: the children always win! Adults’ benefit lies in experience: they have other skills learned in the course of their lives that they can utilize in language learning.

Kirsi Wallinheimo has taught at a high school, a university of applied sciences and a university language center. She currently works as a foreign-language didactics senior lecturer at Swedish-language class-teacher-subject-teacher training at the University of Helsinki. Also her thesis was didactic, that is, it handled how a teacher could best help a language learner.

- It is important to first think about the purpose one needs the language for and about one’s start-up level. A student’s goal is always to be able to communicate: to speak, understand and produce text in a foreign language. Some people need it for their occupation, some for everyday issues such as making friends and buying a bus ticket. 

Safe environment bolsters learning

Regardless of different needs, there are some factors in adults’ studying language that support learning.

- First of all, learning must be interactive: you cannot necessarily by yourself learn such language that you could use. - Second, it should be authentic and spontaneous, that is, language used in real-life situations. Very often, discussions progress into such a surprising direction that memorized lines are not always adequate. Third, learning should be experiential; that is, one should first learn such situations and means of using the language that one feels are important.

Wallinheimo says that group or teacher’s support is of special importance at the phase when real challenges in acquiring the language arise.

- Enthusiasm easily ends at this phase, if no support is available.

Wallinheimo has studied language learning especially on virtual platforms such as the Internet. According to studies, communal learning, sharing experiences and helping others increase in a virtual environment, especially if the environment is deemed to be safe. People are more courageous and fear making mistakes less in a virtual environment.

- Online language applications where people meet one another are positive, because everybody using them are learners. The threshold to enter an open chat is high; and there is probably less willingness to write or pronounce incorrectly.

Unlike children, it is not necessarily easy for adults to find everyday situations where they could naturally practice their language skills.

- It is much easier to join an online discussion than to walk in a café and to sit down at somebody’s table and to start talking or to ask someone in an elevator whether one could practice Finnish or English with that person.

Is it difficult to learn Finnish?

Finnish is considered a difficult language to learn, and Finns themselves emphasize its difficulties: long compound words and inflections. From the students’ perspective, the difficulty often depends on what kind of languages they already have skills in: it is easier to learn languages belonging to the same language family such as Swedish and English.

- Nevertheless, I have had many Chinese-language students that have, in a very short period, learned the Finnish language on such a level that they can act fairly flexibly in everyday life. I believe that such a language proficiency can be attained in a year. At least in Finland, a year consists of all the seasons, and during the year, one gets to familiarize oneself with the culture as well, which supports language learning. Beginning will also take time. One just has to be patient. It is possible to progress very fast indeed, in cycles.

Wallinheimo encourages students to learn Finnish in all everyday activities: for instance, it is worthwhile to read newspapers and watch different kind of TV programs.

- If you do not have friends to talk with, you can sing Finnish songs in karaoke or alone in the shower, or read the news to your dog.

Start talking immediately!

Wallinheimo herself has a Swedish-Finnish immigrant background, which is why she has personal experience in functioning in two languages. She estimates that, compared to Sweden, there is a high threshold in Finland to speak a foreign language unless one feels really competent in it.

- The Swedes tolerate all kind of variations in the Swedish language. Instead of language errors, they concentrate on what the speaker is trying to say. A person that is more skilled in the language can help the other when discussion progresses and offer alternative words.

Wallinheimo encourages students to tolerate uncertainty when they cannot remember the correct word or when they cannot form a sentence. 

- Then you should think whether you could use facial expressions and gestures or use a picture. If you do not know the direct way, you go through the woods without GPS until you reach your destination.

The most important thing is to just start using the language: fine-tuning will come later.

- Start speaking immediately is my motto. Finally, you can tell jokes and share laughs. Take hold of the language and make it look like you. Studying a language must be fun, and it must bring about pleasure. You will learn best through joy!

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Text: Iina Soininen

Photo: Dani Rönnqvist