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You Never Forget Your First—But it’s Hindering You From Learning a Second Language

May 1, 2018

Learning a second language is hard, and it’s even harder to do so at an older age. However, this shouldn’t discourage adults who are trying to learn another tongue—there are plenty of tricks to make it easier.

A crucial element in learning a second language is trying to forget your first. A lot of techniques are based on creating relationships with your native language, but often this only slows learners down.

Use concepts, not words

It’s common for learners to write out vocabulary pairs of their native language with the one they’re trying to learn. And this makes sense, since it’s a logical way of mapping meanings on paper.

But the biggest disadvantage of this method will begin to show later in the learning passage— it takes these learners considerably more time to remember the right foreign words.

Of course, this could be because they don’t practice enough, which results in a weak linkage between words. But more often than not it occurs when a learner heavily relies on their native tongue as a bridge between the foreign morpheme (the smallest grammar unit) and the concept it’s referring to.

Instead of mapping foreign words to native ones, learners are better off mapping words to ideas. This creates an exclusive morpheme-concept neural pathway, and it’s a much more effective way of learning.

By following this process instead of relying on their native tongue as a bridge, language learners can reduce the mapping process, thereby boosting the efficiency of their word retrieval.

This explains why it becomes easier to learn new things in a foreign language once vocabulary and grammar are no longer an issue. By this stage, concepts and morphemes will be mapped together at the encoding level, where information is transformed into electrical signals stored in neurons in the brain.

As an added bonus, this process also reduces the painfulness of learning a new language: the more fluent one feels about using the language, the less painful it is to use it, and the easier it becomes to practice.                                                                                    

Apples and Oranges

Another reason you need to ditch comparisons to your mother tongue is to save time, especially when it comes to culturally-specific terms. Sometimes there’s just no word equivalent in your native language, and wasting time trying to find one is just going to slow down the learning process.

Often our own frustration over how plain or primitive our expressions sound can be the biggest hindrance. Letting go of your native tongue means not comparing your newly-gained language skill with the one that’s been used, practiced, and polished for decades. Stop comparing, and be open to using your new language as much as you can—it will only make you more fluent.