Language Learning: Need vs. Hobby?

View of Fribourg, Switzerland, with Cathedral, Zähringen and Poya bridges
View of Fribourg with Cathedral, Zähringen and Poya bridges

Enjoying a train ride in Switzerland, from Fribourg to Basel, I hear a mixture of languages spoken around me: French, Swiss German, High German, Italian, and English too.
As I’m leafing through the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, I see an article that touches on a subject close to my heart: the future of language learning.
In the article, Gerald Hosp reviews Richard Baldwin’s newly published book: “The Globotics Upheaval – Globalization, Robotics, and the Future of Work” (2019). (Baldwin is professor of International Economics in Geneva, Switzerland.)
In his book, Baldwin discusses how Robotics and AI are speeding up Globalization and what he calls “Telemigration” (virtual Migration). And so, he raises a question that’s on the mind of many a language learner:
With the rapid advances in machine translation and machine learning, does it still make sense to learn another language?

LEARNING ANOTHER LANGUAGE TAKES EFFORT

To be sure, learning a new language – especially as an adult – takes quite a bit of effort and time. If you can communicate easily with a foreigner without going to all that trouble, why waste your time memorizing vocabulary, and learning verb conjugations, adjective agreement, word order, etc?
Even as a former college language teacher and avid language learner (7 languages), I have to admit that Baldwin has an argument.
Because a foreign language has often been experienced as an ornery “school subject”, which you can pass and then forget, many out-of-school adults are reluctant to pick up a language again later.
And then, who’s got the time? Once family and work commitments come to the fore, it’s hard to focus on memorizing vocabulary.
Plus there are plenty of stereotypical myths about language learning that can easily discourage a busy adult:

  • It’s so much harder for an adult to learn a language than for a child. (Well, no it isn’t. Or only, if you consider that adults don’t have as much time as young children do. And granted, the ability to hear different sounds does decrease with age. But practice can overcome that.)
  • Language learning is only for people who have a special language talent. (This is a persistent myth. Just think: because you’ve learned your first language, you’ve already got the tools to learn other languages.)
  • An adult learning a new language will never sound like a native speaker. (So what! There’s nothing wrong with speaking with an accent as long as you’re understood. Plus, with a little focused pronunciation practice, you can improve your accent quite a bit.)

Granted, machine translation and AI will make global business transactions and casual communications with speakers of other languages easier and more efficient.

But, I really don’t think that the wish to learn another language will disappear. With the continuing advances in technology, it’s even possible that for some people learning another language will be as important as ever.

In my opinion, there are at least two groups of people that won’t give up learning another language:
1. Immigrants
2. Language Lovers

IMMIGRANTS – People who decide to live in another country

When we share the language and culture with a small or large group of people, we feel a sense of belonging. It creates trust.
We are able to communicate well and efficiently, and that helps us to develop meaningful and long-term relationships.
Looking at my own family, I cannot imagine how any of us would have managed to build our lives if we had not learned the new language once we moved to another country.
My mother was 28, when she married my father and moved from her native country, the Netherlands, to Austria. Though she never totally mastered all the grammatical subtleties of Austrian German, she fully participated in local life and had a wonderful, supportive group of friends.
Twenty years later, when my parents were 48 years old, our family moved to Canada. Both my father and mother made a sustained effort to improve their rusty school English. Sure, they both spoke English with an accent, but that proved to be no hindrance.
More examples?
My German sister-in-law permanently moved to French-speaking Switzerland at age 27. For years she’s been running several flourishing businesses – all in French.
My German-speaking husband emigrated to the US when he was 27. We met in Boston, where I was a student. He founded and ran a successful consulting company – all in English.
The son of an Austrian cousin moved to Denmark with his family ten years ago. We visited them on our Denmark trip. They all speak Danish now, the children go to local schools. And so on.
Last year while taking a taxi to the airport in Vienna, Austria, we had a long conversation with our driver. He came from Croatia, spoke German with an accent. He told us that he knew very little German when he arrived in Austria. He took language courses early on and now owns a taxi business with several cabs and drivers.
In all the examples above, not learning and speaking the language of their new country was not an option. Yes, learning a new language as an adult has its challenges, but many of those who go to live in another country will make the effort to learn the local language.
What prevents many immigrants in their new country from being successful is very often their lack of language skills.
On the other hand, those who prepare or quickly become fluent enough in the new language will do well.
Considering such facts, learning a new language is in most cases an existential need for immigrants and not just an option.
It’s the same need that lets young children learn their first language: To be able to communicate with those around them. Such need is also the best motivation to learn the language quickly.
(There are, of course, immigrants who live in communities where their native language is spoken on a daily basis. Their need to communicate with the local community is less and they may take longer to learn the new language, if at all.)

LANGUAGE LOVERS

What are true Language Lovers? They are people who don’t need to but want to learn one or more languages for a variety of reasons.
They see language learning as a life-time hobby and do it for the challenge, the adventure, the enjoyment.
People who love languages fall into a broad range. They include those who use two or more languages in their daily life, to those who learn the basics of a language every time they travel to a foreign country.
Among them will also be many who have chosen language-related work or a career involving languages.
Why do we like being active in sports or enjoy painting, drawing, building, playing an instrument, etc.?
By nature, many of us love the challenge of learning a new skill, and feel a sense of satisfaction when we have acquired a new mastery.
When playing sports, we heighten our skills for movement to the level of a game.
When creating something new or performing on an instrument, we often get the feeling of being happily immersed in a flow state.
Building on our language skills by learning French, Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish, Portuguese, Czech, Polish, etc. is not all that different.
And it’s quite satisfying to find ourselves communicating easily in another language.
What makes a hobby fun?
It’s that hands-on, do-it, try-it thing. And what makes a hobby interesting enough that you want to stick with it?
It’s that you’re learning and discovering new things even as you’re doing what you know.
It’s not all that different with a new language. Much of the learning happens as you’re doing it.
So, don’t spend a lot of time learning with a textbook or following lessons.
Language is a social activity. Use your language right from the beginning for short conversations, reading easy texts, listening to basic podcasts, writing a few sentences in a journal.
For language learners, technology provides a wealth of online tools. There are interactive programs, stories (text and audio), videos, podcasts, audio books, etc, for various levels. And, you can also find a tutor, a language-exchange partner, or simply someone else to chat with online.
And then, you can combine physical exercise with your language hobby – walking or jogging while you listen to podcasts and “shadow” foreign sentences.

THE VALUE OF SHARED LANGUAGE

In his recent article in the Guardian: Is the era of artificial speech translation upon us? British science writer Marek Kohn makes a compelling argument for continuing to learn languages, despite advanced translation technology. He writes:

“Whatever uses it [artificial speech translation] is put to, though, it will never be as good as the real thing. Even if voice-morphing technology simulates the speaker’s voice, their lip movements won’t match, and they will look like they are in a dubbed movie.
The contrast will underline the value of shared languages, and the value of learning them. Making the effort to learn someone’s language is a sign of commitment, and therefore of trustworthiness. [… ] Immigrant shopkeepers who learn their customers’ language are not just making sales easier; they are showing that they wish to draw closer to their customers’ community, and politely asserting a place in it.”

Kohn also points out that the person who speaks the language (who “has the language in his head”) will always have an advantage over someone who’s tied to translation on a gadget, even if it’s via ear buds.
How and why people learn other languages is changing all the time, especially with the advances in learning technologies, the internet, and AI. Self-learning has increased dramatically, but also the availability of tutors and language-exchange partners.
So, the future of language learning may be bright, after all? What do you think?

Why is it so much harder for adults to learn a foreign language?

Indeed, it may only be harder because the circumstances under which adults learn languages are typically not the same as the ones for young children.

Recently I answered this question briefly on Quora. Thinking about it some more, I realized that my answer only touched on a few aspects of the question. I also believe that I correctly interpreted the implied part of the question, which was:

The Real Question

Why is it so much harder for adults than for children to learn a foreign language?
It seems to be common knowledge that children learn their first language quite easily and fast. But is this really so?
We know that young children can learn even more than one native language in their early years, if they are exposed to those languages on a daily basis.
And there are many examples of school-age children picking up another language in a new country or neighborhood quickly, if they are immersed in that language in a regular and consistent way.
My wife Ulrike is a good example of the latter: At the age of nine, she moved from Austria to the Netherlands and attended school there for two years. Within a few months she was quite fluent in Dutch. At the age of 11, she then moved to Canada, again in the middle of a school year, and within a few months, she was fluent in English as well.
In both cases, Ulrike immediately used the new language on a daily basis – in school, with friends, and often at home too. And while she remembers many aspects of these moves that were not easy for her (such as the early weeks in the Dutch and Canadian school classes), she does not remember learning Dutch or English as being particularly hard.
Why then do we believe that it would be so much harder for adults to learn one or two new languages?

The Answer

Indeed, it may only be harder because the circumstances under which adults learn languages are typically not the same as the ones for young children or those described above for Ulrike.

  1. Adults typically learn a new language in short learning spurts: classes, books, online programs or apps, audios, videos, or tutors. Unless we enter a several-month-long immersion program in a foreign country (with little or no contact to speakers of our own language), we just don’t get the necessary exposure.
  2. Because we have work and family commitments, we typically don’t have the time to read, listen, speak and write all day in a second language. And thus, we’re not exposed to the new language throughout the day as Ulrike was in the example above.
  3. Most adults just don’t have the chance to converse frequently with native speakers. Learning and becoming fluent in a language requires not only hearing but also speaking it regularly and consistently.

Children’s Advantage

Let’s also not forget that young children learn their first language(s) just by listening, repeating and constantly using language to ask for what they want. Reading and writing comes several years later.
Adults learn a new language mostly by listening and reading, as well as writing, repeating and speaking. To be sure, there are audio-only courses such as Pimsleur, that focus especially on listening and repeating.
However, when you consider the time a typical adult language learner can commit to learning, you can see why the adult’s progress will be slower than that of a child who functions in a new language typically on a daily basis.
What then is the real advantage that children have when they are learning their first language(s)? The biggest advantage has to be that they use and apply the language regularly and consistently.
(Indeed, when children learn a 2nd or 3rd language in school later on, without being exposed to them regularly and consistently at home or during play, their progress does not seem to be much better than that of adults.)

Adults’ Disadvantage

Nevertheless, looking into the topic of children’s language learning advantages some time ago, I came across one true disadvantage adults have: In their early teenage years, young adults begin to lose their ability to hear sounds that are different from those of their native language(s).
R.Goldstone and A. Hendrickson, in a 2009 paper, define “categorical perception” as “the phenomenon by which the categories possessed by an observer influences the observers perception.” If you want to learn more about this phenomenon, see his article or my earlier post Beyond “Learning a Language Like a Child”.
While it certainly appears that learning a language with sounds that a very different from one’s native language will be more difficult for adults, they may be able to overcome such a challenge by focused listening practice.

And Memory

There is, however, one more aspect that older adults will have to deal with: Their memory may not be as good as it was in younger years.
Yes, it may take a little bit longer to memorize vocabulary. But language learning involves forgetting and relearning. And there are plenty of new tools, apps, games, audios, videos, etc. available to adults, to make it enjoyable as well.
The good news about language learning is that studies have shown that adults’ grey cells, in fact, greatly benefit from such learning activities.

So, to all the adults who fret about the challenges they face when learning and practicing a second language:
Embrace the forgetting and relearning!
You are getting a “twofer”: Language(s) that make life, listening, reading, communicating, traveling, etc. more enjoyable, and at the same time, giving your brain a beneficial workout!