Spanish Language Learning: What Method Best Suits My Age?

age-doesn-t-matterHave you ever wondered which Spanish language learning method is best suited to your age? Which techniques give the most success to kids, teens, Spanish students in their twenties, thirties or forties, or middle aged or a mature learners?

This blog post looks at the different influences on your ability to learn a language. Surprisingly, according to experts, language learning at different ages is not really that dependent on your physical or cognitive abilities, your brain’s learning capacity, or your ability to process information…

How quickly do people learn a second language?
The ability to learn a language can differ hugely from one individual to the next. This includes the speed at which people speak, pick up grammar, understand, or write the language.

There are also big variations in the final level of learning that a person can reach: some people quickly become near-native, whilst others, despite studying for years, never get past a medium level. But how much of this can be attributed to age?

It is a subject that has been much debated by language scholars. The most common assertion many people make is that the older you get, the harder language learning is. Children, many people say, learn far faster than adults.

These claims may be true to an extent. However, certain social and psychological factors that are related to age – instead of being directly caused by our physical “brain age” itself  – have a big influence.

Intuitive vs. Analytic learning
Children and even young teens are intuitive about their language learning: because they have only very recently learned their first language, they are able to apply the same learning process quickly to a second language. Also, you may have noticed that kids and young teens tend to just “pick up” words and try them out, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding (and sometimes making adults laugh) until they become proficient. Unlike grown ups, kids are rarely embarrassed by these mistakes because they are just a natural part of their learning process.

stilllearningAdults on the other hand are more analytical in their approach. This can be an advantage because older students can be more purposeful in their learning and use different methods like taking notes or identifying grammar patterns. Adults are also more used to conversation and have a wider first language vocabulary, so they are able to extend their knowledge faster.

But the grown up approach, being more structured, can also affect an older student’s confidence. Adults in Spanish classes generally will not test out the new language as freely as kids do. Instead they often hope to first learn the language “in their heads” – so that they can speak it “perfectly” some day! This kind of fear of making mistakes or sounding silly is often what keeps older students from learning as quickly as children do.

A Question of Time and Money
Younger people often have more time available for studying than older people who have work or family obligations. Most children also receive language tuition at school as part of their normal education, whereas adults have to pay for classes or other resources, and then find the time outside of their existing schedules. These practical considerations play a role in the speed at which a language is learned.

 Different strategies for learning
The structured method is sometimes considered to be the “traditional” way to approach language learning. Generally speaking, it is sometimes easier for adults to grasp a structured method of learning, than it is for kids, and it can include elements like:

  • Learning verbs
  • Studying grammar
  • Reciting vocabulary
  • Doing written tests

Communication-based methods usually emphasise the sort of learning that children experience when they are still acquiring their first language: weight is placed on language immersion and speaking as soon as possible, even if mistakes are made. Children tend to get less anxious about these types of techniques than adults do. Examples of communication-based techniques are:

  • Practical oral group exercises in a classroom
  • Conversation lessons with a private teacher
  • Language exchange with a native Spanish speaker, either in person, or through Skype or other online communication tools
  • Language immersion programs in a native Spanish speaking country

Which strategies suit younger or older students best?
It is generally agreed that a communication-based method is a beneficial method for both children and adults – at least if the learning goal is oral fluidity or later, fluency.

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Everybody can benefit from being thrown into a language scenario and practicing with the vocabulary and knowledge they have. The more hours you spend immersed in a language, the faster you will pick it up, naturally and effortlessly. For adults, often being forced to open your mouth and simply saying something will be more beneficial than pouring over text books and memorising words. The biggest challenge for teachers here is to get adults to feel less anxious about making mistakes.

A structured method, albeit more traditional, is vital too – especially if you are not constantly immersed in the second language. Most people rely on weekly classes or self-study methods, so they will only hear and practice a language for a few hours per week. To completely understand a complex language framework, Spanish students need to understand how the grammar works, recite and learn new words and phrases, and write the language out.

Children, depending on their age, may not yet have the sophistication to use complex structured study techniques, however. And both adults and children, if forced to only learn through a structured method, will rarely become fluent and will often find the process boring.

Get the best of both
Using the two above methods together, as often and as continuously as possible, will bring the best results for all Spanish learners, regardless of age. Luckily there is no clear evidence to prove that older students cannot reach high proficiency levels! Or that children cannot benefit from traditional classes. They just need to be exposed to the language as much as possible and receive good tuition and support, as well as being motivated, of course.

For kids, a Spanish course especially designed for children, which allows them plenty of “intuitive” learning time through fun immersion (like games or songs in Spanish), but also offers structured learning suitable to their age (for example identifying images of familiar items, like toys, or household objects, and placing them next to the correct written words), is the ideal combination.

For adults, a similar system of a good structured course framework that supports a free communication-based method, that includes fun elements of cultural or popular interest like art, cooking, or sport, as well as grammar and written work, will be equally successful.

Immersion vs. studying at home or in a class
In an ideal world, spending time abroad in a Spanish speaking country and receiving structured classroom tuition whilst there, is probably the most effective way to learn a language – whether in a kids’ summer language camp, or at a language school with an intensive or cultural program designed for adults.

Although at the outset a course abroad may seem an expensive option, people are often surprised how affordable a short course in Spain can be – and the immense language benefits a student will get from even two short weeks. Check out our collection of blog articles on the cheapest Spanish language programs in Spain available all over Spain.

Mind you, if your budget currently allows for classroom tuition back home or an online course, you can still get great learning packages that combine both communicative and structured learning. You can also boost your learning by signing up for language exchange with a native Spanish speaker in your area, or on sites such as Livemocha.com, or paying for some one-to-one conversation classes once your proficiency level is sufficiently high. Check out our blog article Five Innovative Ways to Improve Your Spanish for more ideas.NeverstopLearning

The best news?
Any student, given appropriate teaching, plus motivation and support, can make a success of Spanish language learning at any age. Language students, both young and old, come in many different types. Some will become fluent to a native level, and some will advance more slowly. All of them, however, will experience the great enjoyment of becoming part of an exciting, multilingual world.

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