Okay, so we all learned our first language no problem. But amongst people who start learning a second language later in life, there is such a wide range of success levels. According to David Birdsong, age remains the ‘strongest predictor of ultimate attainment’ in learning a second language’. But here’s the thing: this is not necessarily because we are getting older and our brains are not structured the same as when we were younger, etc.
Many late learners seem to ‘fail’ at language learning. But the fact is that there are plenty of success stories; people who could pass as native speakers, even though they started as adults.
So, what affects our success as second language learners? The myriad factors that come into play as we get older and our ‘selves’ develop…
Are you immersed in the second language environment? What kind of input are you getting? Obviously the more the better. If you are teaching yourself, as I am, remember the L + 1 idea: your input at any given time should not be too much beyond your current level. For example, it is said, by such people as Paul Nation, that to maximise ‘incidental vocabulary acquisition’ from extensive reading, you need to understand 98% of it. Then it is likely that you will be able to figure out what the additional words mean from context. On the other hand, if you have to look up 50% of the words, you won’t remember them, and probably won’t understand very well what you are reading.
Motivation is important. And sad to say (for me), being immersed in the second language environment is probably a pretty motivating factor.. I also find from a self-instructional perspective, finding the right materials that work for me, interest me and/or aren’t so much work I get tired, is quite important. If I don’t WANT to, I probably won’t.
A comforting thought
Another academic in the field, Vivian Cook, has pointed out that it makes more sense to compare a second language learner to a bilingual than a monolingual native speaker. Bilinguals’ languages affect each other. Think of any bilingual you know; they don’t sound like monolingual speakers of their less dominant language. I find that a rather comforting thought: unless you’re training to become a spy, don’t worry that you don’t sound exactly ‘right’.
Rather, understand that the mistakes you make are part of your ‘interlanguage’ on your way to being a successful polyglot. In partially understanding another language, you are already more than a monolingual!