Limits in learning a new language

Today I want to talk about limits. When you start learning a new language as an adult, you may think that you won’t be as good as this person, or that you can’t do this or that; but what are the real limits in learning a new language?

you are your only limit

Body limits

There are limits, yes, but I’m pretty sure it’s not what you think…

First, it’s important to know that children and adults don’t learn a new language the same way; this doesn’t mean that you can’t learn as an adult of course, it’s just different because they don’t use the same part of the brain. We’ll get back to this in another article.  

One of the challenges you may encounter is your body limits: for example, if you’re partly deaf, you could struggle to hear and create some sounds of the new language. If you never took language lessons (or sang in a foreign language) before, your vocal system could be more narrow or tighter.

But don’t underestimate your body! David Robson, writer, shared in an article: “Although you may face some extra difficulties at 30, 50 – or 90 – your brain still has an astonishing ability to learn and master many new skills, whatever your age. And the effort to master a new discipline may be more than repaid in maintaining and enhancing your overall cognitive health.”.

Yea, did you know that learning a new language can help you keep brain diseases away? Sarah Lipoff, art educator and parent, has a good way to put it: “Learning a foreign language aides in keeping the brain healthy and boosting brainpower. Learning other languages alters grey matter in the brain, which processes information, just like how exercising creates healthy muscles.”.

So you see? It’s not what you think! 😉

Psychological limits

I often hear things like “I’m old”, “it’s too late now”, “I haven’t been in school for 20 years” or “I can’t do this”; maybe that’s in your head as you read this article. Well, let me tell you something: I do not believe that your age, sex or school background will stop you from learning a new language, not at all! I believe that the only limits you have are the ones you set yourself…

99% of the time, I can clearly see that the limits my students have are only in their own mind. Some of them are using these wrong ideas as excuses to stop their learning journey; it’s sad to see them wasting their potential, but I try to stay positive to motivate them.

the only limits you have are the limits you believe

Here are a few examples of what I usually see: when someone thinks it’s too hard, it may be because they think they are not capable of doing it. When they think they’ll never improve, it may be because they tend to focus on their mistakes instead of their progress. If they think they won’t have time to do homework, it’s probably because they think like when they were at school.

That’s where I come: to show them that they can, to find new ways for them to learn, practice and enjoy the language, to help them improve or rebuild their self-confidence because they can do it!
So we could sum up here by saying that the root of psychological limits is the lack of confidence (and this actually applies to pretty much everything in life). That’s why I use my guiding role in the class on a psychological level as well. Now I’m not a psychologist (even though I wanted to be for a while when I was younger), but human psychology is one of my passions and through my personal and professional experience, I’ve come to learn and know this.

I have lots of examples to prove it but one I remember clearly is a lady in Saskatchewan from a couple years ago: she was taking online private lessons with me to prepare for an exam. She had to pass the exam to be able to have a new position at work. Her level of French was already good but some mistakes were making her communication confusing. We worked on it, we practiced together for the exam but on the D Day, she didn’t pass.
In the next lesson, I could see her disappointment and even a sadness… When we were talking about what went wrong, she told me she was very stressed, even if the exam was on the phone and not in person; throughout the conversation, I understood that the issue wasn’t really her French but her confidence (or lack of it). This failure made it worse by pushing her sensitive button…
So while we were working on her French, we started to work on her confidence as well. That was the hardest part as we didn’t have much time before the next exam. She was improving when we were together because she was feeling comfortable during our lessons; but she didn’t pass the second time either. Again, not because of her level of French, but because of the pressure she put on herself.
After the second time, we talked more deeply about why she was putting this pressure on herself and how she was feeling. Lots of things were happening in her life, both on a personal and professional level, and I was trying to make her see that she didn’t need to put herself through this if she didn’t really want to. The week after, for our last lesson, she told me that she thought about our conversation and she had decided not to take the exam again. I could see something was different: she was relieved, more at peace, lighter in her mind. She was about to get married and told me that she was going to focus on her life and enjoy the time with her family instead of worrying about work. I was so happy to hear that! As a teacher, nothing makes me happier than seeing my students evolving in a happier and better version of themselves! When we said goodbye, she even told me she would send me a picture of her wedding!

I have lots of great memories like that and no matter what level of French we end up reaching, I know my job is done when my students leave with a smile on their face and in their heart! 🙂

My advice

A damaged self-confidence can come from a lot of things; it doesn’t start or stop at the classroom’s door. And the thing is, if you don’t work on it, it gets worse as you grow older. I’ve experienced that myself and when I decided to work on it, it completely changed my life! Through my teaching career, I’ve seen a lot of anxious students; for the youngest ones, unfortunately, the school system was mostly responsible (that’s why I’ve chosen not to be a part of it)…

My advice? Take this opportunity to work on your self-confidence and you’ll soon be blown away by all the amazing things you can do and never thought you could! This will have an impact in and outside of the classroom; you’ll probably see that all the limits in learning a new language suddenly become just little obstacles you can overcome with this new version of yourself! Like I always say: you have way more potential than you think! 😉

If you have other concerns or would like to talk further about your limits, feel free to contact me; I’ll be glad to answer any question you have!


Sources:

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170828-the-amazing-fertility-of-the-older-mind

https://www.funderstanding.com/theory/child-development/stages-of-child-development/language-learning-and-age/

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4 Comments

  • Eric

    Nice article that surely rings a bell with my own experience. I have lived in a number of countries speaking different languages not even close to my own and overtime I learned that above all it is important to go to people and talk the best you can and try to get your message across, only then once the apprehension conquered is your mind ready to intake vocabulary, syntax and grammatical structuring. Thank you Sarah for sharing this article 🙏

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