Why is it Harder to Learn a Second Language than a First Language?

by Louise Taylor


It’s not just those working in the professional translation industry who have a natural aptitude for language absorption. The human brain is pre-disposed towards language learning. No matter where a child is born, nor which language its parents speak, the earliest years of life are spent absorbing, repeating and understanding sounds until the ability to use language to communicate is well established.

Research has shown that children are inherently more capable of acquiring language more quickly and simply than adults; they can absorb language faster because their brains are almost twice as active. Dr Patricia Kuhl explains,

“By three, a little child’s brain is actually twice as active as an adult brain.”

Understanding comes before speech, with toddlers grasping what they are being told long before they can verbalise a response to the instruction. For children in dual language households, the process of understanding and sorting words is just the same. They hear repeated sounds that they attach meaning to and thus develop their linguistic skills. The process can sometimes take a little longer for bilingual children, but that is simply due to their having twice as many sounds to absorb and understand.


Children can learn a second language like a sponge

Children’s brains are like sponges when it comes to language acquisition. From their earliest moments, they hear words being spoken all around them and this allows them to drink in and ultimately interpret those sounds.


Why then, when we teach second (or third, or fourth) languages to older children and adults, do we take such a different approach? Language lessons – whether in schools or an adult education setting – tend to involved sitting behind a desk and studying the particulars of grammar, or learning long lists of words by rote. Lessons are delivered in the student’s native language, other than those particular words and phrases of the language being learned that the teacher has chosen to discuss on that day.

The total immersion that our brains are naturally built to experience is woefully lacking in a standard classroom environment. Much of the fun and excitement of language learning can be removed by this formalised setting. Why should we expect our ears and minds to attune faster to a language when we hear it spoken less and in a less engaging setting than we acquired our first language?

It’s a question that academics have been studying with interest, and an awareness of the benefits of immersion language learning is growing slowly but surely.

Tara Williams Fortune, of the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota, has researched this subject in depth. Her findings show that, in an educational setting, total language immersion can bring about a range of benefits, without the child’s academic performance suffering.

Indeed, “English proficient immersion students are capable of achieving as well as, and in some cases better than, non-immersion peers on standardised measures of reading and math.”


Building your immersion setting

Of course, for adult learners, the total immersion experience is much harder to achieve. They will still have to work, socialize, go to the gym, go to the shops and so forth in their native language. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t introduce an immersive language experience in the home.

That means no native language TV programs, radio stations, books or magazines. The internet is awash with cartoons in multiple languages, which are a great starting point for the language immersion experience.

After all, cartoons play a key role in the way that many toddlers develop their first language, so why should we overlook them when it comes to second language learning? Podcasts and internet radio stations are also great learning opportunities, while comic books, magazines and simple books all help the brain to become accustomed to the new language much faster.

Nor does language learning need to be limited to the home. Daily commuting time is an excellent opportunity for immersing yourself in another language. Drivers can opt for CDs or use their smartphone to download content in the language being learned.

The learning opportunities of a 30-minute journey to work may at first seem limited, but bear in mind that the home journey will be the same length and suddenly that’s an extra five hours per week of immersive language learning – plus it may serve to brighten up the daily commute!

Finding fellow speakers is also key and this is where the internet really comes into its own. Learning a language is about practising to speak it regularly, as well as reading it and hearing it. As such, conversational language classes can be a huge bonus. There are plenty of language professionals available to give classes online over Skype and similar programs, so adults looking for true immersion can always find someone to converse with.

All they need to do is let the teacher know that they only want to speak the language being learned and the classes can begin.

Flash cards are also a fabulous tool for language learning. They are an engaging and effective way to help young children learn their first language, using bright, bold images to help fix the association between the picture and the word in the child’s brain. There are numerous free to use flashcard programs available online, for learning everything from colours to animals to emotions. They provide a surprisingly quick way to build up your vocabulary.

Pinning words onto everyday objects around the home can also help the brain to learn through association. If you read the relevant word every time you use the fridge, hairdryer, bathroom, etc. it won’t be long before your brain has absorbed a vast amount of vocabulary almost without effort. Such techniques engage the brain’s active recall functionality and use metacognitive faculties to ensure that the knowledge is absorbed. It’s an excellent way to use child-like learning abilities while studying a language as an adult.



Such linguistic immersion isn’t easy. It takes discipline to swap entertainment in your native language in favour of surrounding yourself with sounds that you (certainly initially) don’t understand in the slightest. By the end of the day, you might be desperate to reach for the latest novel in your first language, but stay strong and pick up a children’s book in the language you’re learning instead – doing so will help your brain to adapt faster to the new language.

If you really want to learn a second language and want to be able to speak it to the best of your ability, total immersion can be an incredibly beneficial practice.

Why not try it for yourself and see?

Louise Taylor is the content writer of the Tomedes Blog and the Business Translation Center.


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Louise Taylor

Louise Taylor is the content writer of the Tomedes Blog and the Business Translation Center.