The 5 Golden Rules of Adult Language Learning

golden rules

Ever heard that you should be language learning like a child?

"Kids are like a language sponge" is a belief continued in the media. The mantra goes like this: Little kids are like a language sponge, they pick up any word and phrase you throw at them and will learn a language very easily.

And the myth goes on to claim that adults have missed the boat. They are starting way too late to ever reach any respectable level of expertise in a foreign language, and they'll definitely never sound like a native speaker.

Why? Because science.

This myth is about as widespread as it is infuriating. For examples, see the headlines on this article about babies and sound, or this inevitable product selling you on an invented cut-off age of seven years.

Adult Learners Can Learn A Foreign Language Quickly And Easily

In this article, I won't dwell on the volumes of research that have been done on human brains, language acquisition, speech therapy, ageing, and so forth. In a very tiny nutshell: Learning anything is harder when you're an adult, and the best evidence for any critical period is in the area of accent development (27 page ref to knock yourself out with at this URL).

There's a great selection of research on the topic, and for a primer check out the sources listed in Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language. The book is an awesome collection of helpful information, and was a fabulous resource for me as I was writing this article.

For today, I'd ask you to forget about anything you've ever heard about the childlike brain. Open your mind, and let's explore some realistic ways of making language learning work for you - at any age.

1. Analyse and Repeat Patterns

Adults can learn languages in a deliberate way. The structure of practicing new sentences is one of these keys - analyse, understand, apply, repeat.

There is no need to cram your way through grammar books as you learn a new language. It's totally possible to speak when you haven't even touched on any grammar yet. I did it in Icelandic last week, and I have helped my own German students to do this from the start.

But the key to using grammar to your advantage is in using it to answer your questions. Next time you hear someone say a sentence in your target language, repeat it and try saying something different with the same structure. If you're talking to a native, get them to give you more examples with that structure. If you're learning by yourself, consult a grammar book or text book.

What you are doing now is learning a pattern or chunk of language (like a child), and at the same time satisfying your curiosity by discovering the rule behind it (like an adult).

2. Set Goals and Track Your Progress

Goals! Projects! Missions! Whatever you call them, they are the lifeblood of sticking with where you are at as a language learner. Since you are a busy person, being accountable for your own time is one of the best ways of feeling both accomplished and efficient.

Tracking your progress is not only a good way of structuring how you learn. It will also help you combat the dangers of motivation loss. The longer you stick with what you've already studied, the easier it will be to keep going. In other words: It's easier to break a 2-day streak than to break a 2-month streak.

Tracking can work in many different ways. It can be as simple as keeping up with habit streaks on apps (Duolingo, Memrise, or just type "habit" into any App Store). Or it can be a detailed log and review base like your personal notebook. If you'd like detailed goal-setting advice, check out Lindsay Dow's course Successful Self Study.

3. Move On From Setbacks

I like to tell my learners that even the brightest student won't remember a new word immediately, and instead needs to encounter it up to 15 times before it truly sticks. Anyone who has experienced that cold sweaty feeling of forgetting words mid-conversation Knows what a language setback feels like.

But there is no reason to give up at that point. Remember progress tracking? The small wall you are hitting today is a result of the long way that you have come so far. You would never have dreamed of that wall back at the beginning.

Moving on from setbacks is largely a challenge to your mindset. Remember that language learning is not a straightforward line. In fact, it doesn't even have an end point. You just go along the path every single day and become a little better with each step.

For a bit of positive thinking "in a bottle", my pre-made set of affirmations will be a great resource to check out. Remember that growth mindset - at any age, you're just getting started.

4. Know And Respond To Your Learning Style

It's impossible to predict your success based on superficial facts: Your age or your native language are practically useless in helping you figure out how to learn German vocabulary faster. Neither will your star sign, for that matter.

However, the more you understand your own preferences and habits, the easier it becomes for you to learn a language successfully.

Being aware of your social learning style can go a long way to helping you create a language learning routine that you'll enjoy for a long time. For example, the difference between extroverts and introverts shows in how they practice, read and speak languages.

Knowing the time of day when you're at your best, or recognising signs that you are tired and need to rest, are other important factors.

And don't forget the ongoing debate about learning styles. Even if the classic "visual-auditory-kinetic" styles are no longer supported in research, it's worth finding out how you best process new information. As Edutopia puts it:

It is critical to not classify students as being specific types of learners nor as having an innate or fixed type of intelligence.

Find a style that you enjoy, that doesn't zap your energy, and that helps you set habits. And if that means speaking comes on day 100, so be it.

On that note..

5. Build Great Habits

If you want to get a better handle about how to build winning habits, start with how you make habits stick in other areas of your life. For example, some people stay fit by scheduling regular workout times, while others need accountability and love tracking their runs online. I recommend you start digging into this with help from Episode 32 of the Creative Language Learning Podcast, in which we discussed habits, styles and tendencies based on the work of writer Gretchen Rubin.


So this article actually started out over three years ago, when I was first blogging about the many myths in language learning. I've always been bothered by this kid-language-sponge idea because it does nothing to help adult learners progress.

If you have the opportunity to expose your kids to other languages, go for it. They will do awesome.

But more importantly, do not ever believe that you are over the hill.

Here's how I finished my article in 2013.

Start thinking about this one from the other point of view: If little kids can do it, then anyone can.

I still believe the exact same thing.

What are your biggest problems as an adult language learner?

Leave me a comment below or get in touch - I'd love to hear more about what you think of the research behind this and the study methods I listed.

If you're feeling all fired up to get started and make progress with a new language right now, download the FREE Guide to the Best Resources in Language Learning by registering below: