Language learning is easier when we're younger because our brains are still developing. In fact, our language centers are at their most flexible under the age of 12 and continues to develop until we're around 25 years old (Arain et al., 2013, 451 & 459).
Our adolescent brains have a flexibility that helps us learn new skills and large parts of our brain mature during this transitional stage from child into adulthood. This means that our language, memory and problem solving ability grows rapidly (Arain et al., 2013, 451).
It is generally considered easier to learn a second language when we're young (Steber & Rossi, 2021, 1). Does that mean you cannot learn a language later on? No! Not at all! I would argue it is becoming more valuable to know more than one language in today's global world.
While it may be easier to learn a second language when we're younger, our adult brain has one advantage: we have more general knowledge and the ability to relate, compare and contrast objects and concepts (Steber & Rossi, 2021, 2).
The most important element to learning a new language or improving your second language skills is repetition! When you start practicing make sure that it's not a one off (easier said than done, I know right!?). Keep at it, though. Start your morning routine by speaking English in the mirror to yourself, read any English news articles out loud, or greet your colleagues in English. Whatever you can do to use English at least once every day can improve your language skills significantly. Remember: everyone learns at their own pace so don't rush your process.
Studies show that it is a good idea to learn another language, regardless of age. It can improve memory, communication and creativity (Spence, 2022, Woll & Wei, 2019, 8-10). In addition to keeping your brain healthy and active, learning a new language can improve your chances on the job market. Knowing another language, especially if you are working internationally or are noticing that your team is becoming more international will help you connect more easily on a personal and professional level (Spence, 2022).
How I Became Bilingual
I owe my own language skills to my parents. I was born in the north of the Netherlands and my parents quickly realised I had a knack for languages. So they encouraged me to work with it.
My dad used to say that if I wanted to be anyone and learn my way around in the increasingly international and global world, that I would have to know at least one other language. It helped me a lot. I ended up studying the language and became a teacher, ha!
I was encouraged to try things out and found that I preferred speaking, reading and writing in English. I started reading English books, which was quite convenient as the Harry Potter books were coming out right before my birthday each year!
I started writing in my early teens and, with some help, wrote to foreign embassies in The Hague with questions. I even received replies with answers and additional information. I still have the envelop I received from the Embassy of Japan back in 2004!
Each letter I wrote, each notebook I scribbled full of nonsense, each English book I read helped me improve my language skills. Unfortunately, though it doesn't bother me anymore now, the more my English improved and became 'my own' language, the further my Dutch deteriorated. I currently keep it up by reading a few Dutch newspapers and speaking Dutch when I'm walking my dogs, or tutoring :).
Of course, what helped me immensely is that I moved to English speaking countries (Liverpool, England and Ottawa, Canada) and didn't have much of a choice but communicate in English. That doesn't mean that moving to the UK is an essential element to learning English, fortunately! In fact, you have ample opportunity in the Netherlands to practice your English as well!
Tips to Improve your English Language Skills
Watch English television
While many series and films on the telly are already in English, it's easy to keep the Dutch subtitles on and read along. Try watching the BBC or turn on the English subtitles. If you're feeling bold, turn off the subtitles and see if you can still follow the show or film just as well.
Do what I do in Dutch: read English news articles or magazines online.
This will help you see the grammar structures and word order without getting a general grammar lesson. You may notice it gets easier to read the articles once you keep doing it.
You may start out looking up some words in a dictionary, which I highly recommend you do but you'll see that if you stick with it, you will need that dictionary less and less.
Sign up for a skills training class to get the help you need to improve on your own language skills. Take charge of your own learning!
To be continued....
Tune in next week for my new post and more practical tips and tricks for learning English! If you can't wait a whole week, feel free to send me a message on firstname.lastname@example.org
Arain, Mariam., Haque, Maliha., et al., Maturation of the Adolescent Brain, Dove Press Journal: Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, Vol. 9, Kralendijk, Bonaire, 2 April 2013. Accessed online at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3621648/pdf/ndt-9-449.pdf
Spence, Carley., How Learning a New Language Changes your Brain, World of Better Learning Blog, Cambridge, 29 April 2022. Accessed online at: https://www.cambridge.org/elt/blog/2022/04/29/learning-language-changes-your-brain/#:~:text=So%20it's%20no%20surprise%20that,or%20as%20an%20adult%2C%20either.
Steber, Sarah., Rossi, Sonja., The Challenge of Learning a New Language in Adulthood: Evidence from a Multi-methodogical Neuroscientific Approach, PLoS One, Vol. 16 (2), Innsbruck, Austria, 19 February 2021. Accessed online at: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0246421
Wei, Li., Woll, Bencie., Cognitive Benefits of Language Learning: Broadening our Perspectives, The British Academy, London, February 2019. Accessed online at: https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/documents/287/Cognitive-Benefits-Language-Learning-Final-Report.pdf