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Is immersion the best way to become fluent in a new language during adulthood, or will you need to make ample use of rote memorization? SteadyHealth spoke to three successful adult language learner

While linguists continue to argue about the exact mechanisms by which human infants acquire language, babies all over the world continue to do what they've been doing for a very long time now — they utter their first words, begin stringing them together into simple sentences, and play with language until they are capable of creating complex structures able to express anything they have the vocabulary for.

Anyone who has seen this process in action is bound to think of it as something that happens almost by magic, seemingly without effort, but an infant's brain is hard at work making sense of that exciting world of speech around them. Those first words are a huge leap, but the process of acquiring language never stops — when that baby reaches college age, they'll still be acquiring words, and it's not too late even when they're in their eighties. Some words have to be looked up in the dictionary to be understood properly, but most of the time, context gives us a good idea of meaning, to the point that we'll find ourselves putting our new gems to the test without ever seeking a formal definition. Much of the time, we don't even realize we're doing it!

The question is, can we replicate this natural language acquisition process even in adulthood, when we've set our sights on mastering a new language?

 

From internet-powered language learning software like Rosetta Stone to immersion academies, many pros in the field answer that question with a resounding "yes". Is that the whole story, though? Let's take a closer look by examining the methods three successful adult language learners used.

Little Mouse, Where Is Your House? The Long Road Towards Fluent English

Elena Bulakhtina, medical doctor, SteadyHealth author, and Russian, was enrolled in English lessons at age five after being taught how to say "My name is..." by a family friend, despite disapproving Soviet neighbors. She hated the lessons and did her best to sabotage the process, she says, adding:

During this short study period, I learned the English alphabet and 'little mouse, little mouse, where is your house'. I swear, that’s all I remember from then, and I don’t even know where this verse comes from. Soon, everything got back to normal. I resumed playing with the older kids at the construction sites where we melted lead parts of the discarded radiators in order to make cool toys. Again, the neighbours disapproved.

 

That "little mouse" was the reason she was selected to be in the English, rather than German, learning group at school from fifth grade onwards though, and Elena's describes those lessons are "very dull", mostly consisting of memorizing short texts she didn't find incredibly relevant. During these lessons, she learned enough to be considered better than average when she entered premed, but being in the wild throws of adolescence led her to reject the individual tutoring offered to her, once again rendering her English almost non-existent. (But something must have stuck in her brain?)

Despite the wasted opportunity ("I was an idiot", Elena now says), she got into a postgraduate medical residency program in the US some years later — and acceptance, of course, depended on being proficient enough in English. Elena shares:

Reading wasn’t that bad, and I picked it up relatively quickly, thanks to the internet. Thanks to movies and English channels on TV, the comprehension problem was also solved. I loved 'ER', 'X-files', and 'Vets in Practice' the best. At the same time, through multiple chain of events, I got acquainted with two Americans. One helped me with writing via emails, and the other ended up hanging out with our gang in Moscow. In a year, most of us had no problem conversing in American English.

 

After five years in the States, Elena moved to Canada, where she still lives today. How is her English doing? Judge for yourself:

I still mispronounce many words, omit articles, and make other speaking mistakes. 'shit' — 'sheet', 'bitch' — 'beach', 'ship' — 'sheep' got me into trouble initially. Now I use 'shit' and 'bitch' for pretty much everything, and substitute the rest with a 'boat' or 'shore'. I’m understood, and my English is good enough to testify in court. There are occasional problems with comprehension of Scots and Irish, but a couple of pints facilitate mutual understanding.

 

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