Learning a New Language as an Adult Isn't a Piece of Cake

Over the last few months, Duolingo, a popular language learning app that has over 300 million users worldwide, saw its global traffic reach an all-time high.

Stuck at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rachel Cali wanted a constructive way to take her mind off of things after work. With businesses and restaurants closed down, the Southern California resident suddenly had more time on her hands than she knew what to do with.

So, she turned to an old hobby.

“I had been trying to learn Mandarin for several years since I got engaged to my now-husband, as it’s the primary language that his family speaks together,” Cali said. “So, as we’ve been staying at home, I’ve been trying to get back into studying.”

Cali was not alone in her linguistic pursuit. Over the last few months, Duolingo, a popular language learning app that has over 300 million users worldwide, saw its global traffic reach an all-time high. During the month of March, the company saw a 101 percent growth in new users.

This spike didn’t surprise Lisa Davidson, a professor and chair of the Department of Linguistics at New York University. She saw plenty of folks on social media say that for them, a stay at home order was the perfect opportunity to try to master another language for many reasons.

“It’s something that you can do, and it’s easily accessible now, so you don’t have to sign up with a school or go to a school,” Davidson said. “Why not use this time to learn another language?”

But, learning a new language as an adult is challenging – no matter the circumstances. It’s not as simple as just dusting off an old textbook from high school. And even for the most enthusiastic learners, age plays a factor. As she began learning Mandarin, Cali noticed these certain challenges when it came to her language retention.

“I definitely find that I’m very self-conscious, in terms of making sure that I’m speaking correctly in a way that I think I wouldn’t have been as a child,” Cali said. “I know that as a child, your brain is still sort of prepped to learn new words and new tones and things like that in a way that mine isn’t anymore.”

According to Davidson, there are neurological reasons backing this idea. There are certain changes in the brain that occur during puberty for most people that make it more difficult to learn a new language, and it only gets harder from there. It’s one of the reasons why most linguists say that the best and easiest time to learn a new language is as young as possible.

“If you can raise a child bilingually, that is by far the best way to do it,” Davidson said. “Even if your child isn’t raised bilingually in the home, but they can do a dual-language program starting in elementary school or pre-k, that is also going to be an amazing way to do it.”

For adults, though, there are also some other key factors when it comes to language retention, including the actual teaching method used. While language apps are convenient, in some cases, they aren’t the most realistic.

“I do use Duolingo a lot, and I found it to be very helpful for vocabulary, but there’s definitely been drawbacks,” Cali said. “Even just talking to my husband just now about the way that words are pronounced – and of course, that’s an AI stringing a sentence together, and it’s not very fluid, and it isn’t exactly how you’d use language in real life.”

Communicating and practicing those new language skills are crucial, Davidson said. It’s one of the reasons why an adult learning French, for example, might learn the language more quickly if he or she moved to Paris.

“So just speak it with as many people as you can because it’s like a muscle, right? This is kind of the cliché that we use,” Davidson said. “The more you use it, the more beefy it’ll be.”

Since most people aren’t jet-setting anytime soon to other countries during the pandemic, turning the internet into a global teacher, for now, is also a solid option when it comes to language studies.

“You can practice by watching YouTube, you can practice by reading blog posts or whatever, or listening to songs in another language,” Davidson said. “So if we’re sitting here in quarantine, we can also take advantage of the world that’s out there to really put in place the lessons that we’re learning.”

For Cali, her Southern California apartment has turned into an educational hub with some added cultural benefits. Aside from her lockdown language studies, she and her husband have watched Chinese movies together, and they’ve cooked some of the traditional cuisine he grew up enjoying as a kid.

“It’s actually been a great time for me to learn about the culture,” Cali said.

As for her language skills? It’s still a work in progress.

“I don’t think I’ll ever probably fully master Mandarin,” she said, “but I’m certainly hopeful to just keep getting more comfortable every day, and I’m confident that I can keep learning and keep building those skills.”