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How to learn a new language (in 15-minute a day installments)

Think the chance to learn a second language has passed you by? Experts say you can do it, but you need to put in the time. Here's how much.
Image: A woman smiles inside a train station
It makes travel a whole lot easier, but learning a new language is great for your brain; one study found that bilingualism helps staves off cognitive decline as we age.Paul Bradbury / Getty Images/Caiaimage

I grew up with a Hispanic mother who didn't teach me the Spanish she grew up speaking. It would appear that her choice not to pass down the language was part of a greater trend. New research shows that second-generation Hispanic immigrants are much less likely to teach their kids the Spanish they were taught than fist-generation immigrants. Surely the decline is at least partly a result of cultural assimilation, but it draws attention to an important matter: the value of knowing a second language. Bilingualism isn’t just beneficial in enabling us to connect with foreigners, it’s great for your brain; one study found that bilingualism helps staves off cognitive decline as we age.

Now, in my thirties, I am determined to learn Spanish. The passion stems in part from the fact that I want to understand this language that has floated untouchably above me all my life. How can monolingual adults such as myself learn a second language (on their own time, from their own home and ideally with little to no money spent)? I consulted experts to find out.

Yes, learning a language when a child is easier, but there’s no cutoff point

Dr. Richard Shuster, a clinical psychologist and the host of "The Daily Helping Podcast" notes that children (up to about the age of 10) have a natural ability to pick up multiple languages, in part because of their brain’s neuroplasticity. Essentially, children are wired to learn and form new neural pathways and unlike adults, children’s brains haven’t formed a cerebral preference over their learning style (whether they learn better by sight or by sound).

“Learning a language as a child takes place without thinking about it really because children have the ability to learn almost equally whether [receiving] information by sound or by sight.” says Dr. Shuster. “Adults can't do that. Some of us learn better visually while others may do better with hearing, but kids typically to both equally well, which is a big advantage. Some research has found that until the age of five, kids can process up to five languages.”

But despite the young child’s advantage in becoming bi- or multilingual, adults shouldn’t misunderstand this to mean they’ve passed some learning cutoff point.

“It was once thought that by a certain age our brains stopped developing, but that’s not at all true,” says Dr. Shuster. “It's just that neuroplasticity doesn’t happen as easily when we’re adults so learning a second language is much more time-intensive.”

Know your learning style. Are you audio or visual?

First, it’s important to establish whether you’re a visual or auditory learner.

“If you don’t already know, there are lots of places you can go online and take a test, or even ask a psychologist,” says Dr. Shuster. “Knowing how you learn and process information will help you stack the deck in your favor.”

Another quick way to find out your learning style, Shuster mentions, is to assemble a piece of furniture that comes with the manual. Do the written instructions (audio) aide you most, or are the images of the pieces coming together more helpful?

Choose a language with a culture (or a food) that interests you

If you don’t have a specific reason for learning a language, pick one with a culture that interests you.

“When the language you want to learn is also tied into culture, you can get deeper access,” Philip Dunne, SVP, global consumer at Rosetta Stone tells NBC News BETTER. “So, if you’re learning Korean, go to the Korean food trucks, Korean restaurants and any local Korean markets. Learners tell us that this is really beneficial because it lets you immerse as well as practice.”

if you’re learning Korean, go to the Korean food trucks, Korean restaurants and any local Korean markets.

Each language has its own challenges, but none are naturally tougher than others

Prior to speaking with experts I had a lot of opinions about which languages are “easier” to learn than others. For instance, I believed that Arabic would be tougher for a native English speaker to pick up than, say, a Latin language. This isn’t necessarily the case.

“All languages have individual challenges,” says Dunne. “A different alphabet presents different challenges, as do some Asian languages that are more tonal in nature. But while we may be more familiar with languages that use the same alphabet, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re easier for us to learn.”

Betty Antonio, senior coach manager at Rosetta Stone seconds Dunne, adding that when she lived in Japan, knowing no Japanese, she was prepped for a tremendous challenge but found it to be no tougher than learning any other language, noting “the different alphabet [intimidated me], but the grammar is very structured which helps a lot.”

Download all the apps, but more importantly, form habits to use them

There’s a plethora of language learning apps on the market. I’m using Duolingo (which is among the most popular, with over 10 million users) as well as Rosetta Stone’s first free hour of content (unlocking the rest requires a subscription starting at $6.99 a month). Since I’m not signing up for any live courses or tutoring, these apps will be my core curriculum.

“Having the language learning available on your phone is crucial and we recommend setting aside at least 10 to 15 minutes a day to practice,” says Dunne. “We’re finding more and more that people are learning in shorter bursts versus hour-long sessions, which is a reflection of our mobile lifestyle. Plus, it’s easier to find the time.”

Practice intensely that first month

While I have my apps at the ready, I’m having trouble being consistent in practicing. Dr. Shuster notes that it’s important to get past this, and use these apps regularly for at least a month as I begin.

“We know that it takes 30 to 45 days to form a new habit,” says Dr. Shuster. “It’s similar in terms of learning new languages as you’re creating these new neural pathways.”

Shuster adds that it’s important to practice while you have quiet time whether that’s during a commute or just before bed. He adds that listening to your foreign language while you fall asleep may work out for your schedule, but it won’t do anything for your learning process.

“Lots of people will tell you that if you listen to something while sleeping it will help you learn it, which isn’t true,” says Shuster. “The reason I recommend doing it at night is because you’re not so distracted by your day and you can focus more in a quiet and dark environment.”

Label things in your house in the language you’re learning

Antonio of Rosetta Stone recommends labeling objects in your house by their foreign names. This will help you get the hang of “using the language in real-life situations,” says Antonio.

That said, don’t dive into words before you’ve grasped the syntax and grammatical rules of the language, which as Dr. Shuster notes, is the toughest part. “After you learn those, then you’re just adding words,” he says, suggesting that collecting vocabulary is the simplest part of the process.

Sign up for meet-ups, online groups and any chances to immerse

Both Shuster and the experts at Rosetta Stone say that the optimal way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it, which can be difficult if you’re not in a place where it’s natively spoken. The next best thing is to join groups with others looking to practice.

“I think that Meetup groups are very helpful and there are a lot in most large cities,” says Antonio. “Joining others who are learning is a great way to immerse, as is reading books in Spanish, watching shows in Spanish and listening to music in Spanish.”

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