Becoming Bilingual

Of course, we want to learn a second language.  Besides being a cool skill to have, many cognitive scientists now feel being bilingual is good for the brain. It can improve one’s ability to stay focused and maintain a good attention span. Moreover, many now believe it can put off memory loss and keep our brains healthy. Unfortunately for most of us, after the age of 18, research has shown the brain becomes less equipped to learn a second language

Still, many adults gamely fodder along and give it a try. Lessons, apps, classes, social media, websites, movies and television can guide us along, yet the challenge of becoming bilingual is daunting. Clearly, our aging brains aren’t quite as nimble as they were in our brain-developing younger years. It can be as frustrating as it is rewarding.

As we take on this challenge, and embark on this journey, there are things we should be aware of. They can help us achieve our learning goals and may even save us some money along the way.

Here are three important learning criteria we should know:

1. Metacognition

Simply put, metacognition is the awareness of one’s ability to learn. In many cases, it centers on “learning how to learn.” This is something most people don’t think about, but as an adult second language learner, it is an important first step in the ability to master that new language.

We must first ask ourselves, “How badly do I want to learn this language?” If knowing a second language is ‘nice to have,’ vs. ‘have to have,’ we may not be as driven, and your learning can take longer. The more important learning a new language is to us, the stronger our metacognition, or willingness. Obviously, the more willing we are to learn, the more—and quicker—we will learn.

It is also a good time to reflect on how we learn best. Studying language material while sitting on the couch, watching television, directing the kids, and checking the phone is probably not indicative of good learning. Regular time to ourselves, be it a podcast on the commute home, or 15 or 20 minutes in the local Starbucks might be a better option.

 How we learn best is up to us. No one style is best for everyone. Give that a serious think before you embark on your second language journey.

2. Persistence

In our very busy lives, who has the time to dedicate on a big, new project such as being bilingual? Between time spent working, commuting, and being at home with family, the leftover time for ourselves seems to shrink every year. But what if we gave your new learning project five-minutes a day?

Learning gurus often say that spending five minutes every day learning something new can be as beneficial as spending hours on the same thing two or three times a week. In other words, “micro-learning” keeps the brain on track to receive new information. That being said, persistence can be an important part of learning something new. Ideally, several days a week can be dedicated to more than five-minutes, but what’s important is that the new language be studied, one way or another, every day.

We should take the time to learn something every day. Perhaps listen to a foreign language station or podcast on the drive home from work, rather than what we normally listen to. We can read the paper in the new language every morning; or watch a little foreign language television. Whatever we choose to do, we should just be persistent.

  1. Resourcefulness

Obviously, having money to invest in language learning can be a plus. Spending time with a private tutor, whether face-to-face or virtually, can be quite impactful. But how much money are we willing to spend on this new learning project? How many lessons will we need to become fluent? 100? 200? 500? 1,000? More? At $20-$30 an hour for a private tutor, that can certainly add up. How many of us are willing to spend $30,000 just to be able to communicate better with our car mechanic, maintenance man, or foreign speaking neighbor?

For the thriftier of us, there are other, more resourceful options available, which given proper time and thought, can be just as effective. Foreign language websites can build up our reading skills. Foreign language television or videos may also be quite prevalent, depending on the language we are pursuing. And if there are subtitles, even better. We can also scour the ap store for free aps, or social media for foreign language posts. The point is, foreign language exposure options are out there, we just have to take the time to find them.

Ideally, a good option would be to make a small investment in a tutor; either for a private lesson or a small group lesson. But that should be supplemented with other learning options. Perhaps we can have our formal lesson twice a week, listen to a podcast three times a week, and the other two days can be spent reading something in the new language. We spend some money, but we do not go overboard.

Being bilingual, especially as an adult learner, can be a real challenge. It doesn’t mean that it is not doable. It is important for the learner to understand what the challenges will be, and plan accordingly. It will take time and probably a little bit of money. But if we know the difficulties going in, develop a learning plan, and stick to it; that foreign language will be there in our brains slowing down its aging and helping stay focused.

“¿Estamos listos, amigos?”

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