Second Language Acquisition and My Mature Brain

My journey started almost 10 years ago. As a School Psychologist in California, it was expected that I would test native Spanish speakers and determine that there were handicapped and exclude them from the high stakes testing. I found that most of these students were not handicapped but needed more opportunity to practice in their second language. I decided to go to a Spanish speaking country and learn Spanish.


What I learned startled me. It was difficult for me.  I have never had difficulty learning anything. It was frustrating for me. I realized something that made me re-evaluate how we educate second language learners.  I was a mature adult and I was being taught with grammar lessons which would be appropriate for a 7-11 year old native speaker. My learning style, personality, motivation for learning a second language, developmental age and preferred modality were all ignored as I was presented with this cookie cutter approach. Any difficulties with learning the language was attributed to my age over 40 and lack of motivation “laziness” I also witnessed a nationalism. Mexico had lived in the shadow of the United States for a long time. Here was an opportunity to “get back” at Americans  for the perceived injustices in the domination of English and the necessity to acquire English in order to access opportunities.


I decided to make second language acquisition as the focus of a  Post Doctorate Neuropsychology program. I received a lot of interest and offers of financial support. Everyone wanted to know why some people came to the United States and acquired the language quicker than others. I can answer that now, practice. It is not lack of intelligence, motivation, will power etc. It is simply lack of practice. The more you practice a language, the more proficient you will be. There are many reasons why some people practice more than others. Different groups have different experiences with the English language.


I became fairly fluent in Spanish. I still had difficulty with slang. But then I have difficulty with slang in English and I don’t use slang much. I have to tell you that I taught myself Spanish. I dropped out of Spanish schools more times than I care to count. I hate grammar lessons in English and they are no more appealing in Spanish. I studied my language books, practiced my computer programs on my laptop. Read books magazines in Spanish, watched TV and movies but most of all communicated with Spanish speakers on topics of interest to me.


I noticed something fairly interesting. Most of my experiences with native Spanish speakers were pleasant. I did find some native speakers who were angry with Americans and openly hostile. I found that I tended to shut down in confrontational situations. I couldn’t remember words and I didn’t want to talk to angry hostile people in a language that was not my native language. I also  noticed that I remembered language which was relevant to me. I loved words and reading and spent a great deal of time reading words and speaking.


I realized that many native Spanish speakers did not have a pleasant time learning English in my country. They were often ridiculed for their accent or approached with outright hostility. Spanish did not have the reverence of French or German. Native Spanish speakers felt the slight. I decided that this issue was much more complex than I had previously appreciated.


I presented a proposal for my Neuropsychology program to study how the brain acquires a second language using my own brain, a woman over 40 as a single case study. I wanted to study all aspects of learning a language. I was proposing to acquire 5 languages in less than 3 years. I was told that no one was interested in how anyone learned any language other than English and so I needed to narrow my study to why some people came to the U.S.A. and were too lazy to acquire the language. Not exactly unbiased language spoken by a respected Professor and Researcher.


I decided to take on the project without the Post Doctorate Program. I taught myself the language in the U.S.A. using movies, books, tv, computer programs, and taped recordings.  I would go to the country that the language was spoken and then practice the language until I reached moderate proficiency. It generally took me about 4 weeks to be able to move around freely in my target language and in my target language. I found that if I combined my language study with volunteer work, I tended to remember information more quickly. I acquired 5 languages in 2 ½ years, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German and Italian. I found that it was difficult to maintain a language that I did not use. When I made friends who spoke the language and communicated with them once I returned home, I tended to retain the language. I did not retain Italian and German, I had no relationships with anyone who spoke those languages.


It’s been 5 years since I have tried to acquire a new language. I  have turned 50. If I listened to the experts, I would not attempt any African or Asian languages. But then I never take orders from anyone. I am at the airport now going to Kenya. I probably won’t become very proficient at Kiswahili on this trip because I have not practiced enough before I departed my country. I have not focused on the language. But I will practice and I will become proficient enough to conduct an educational project in East Africa.  So I welcome you to join me on this safari ( Kiswahili for journey or trip) and walk along with me as I expand my mind once again. It will be fun, It will be frustrating. Kwaheri


Every Educator should strive to learn something totally new. We all need to engage in an activity which forces us to have a beginners mind. We forget how difficult learning can be for our students because we are relying on information that we learned a long time ago and practice every day. It heightens our sensitivity, but more importantly if forces us to think about how we learn and  develop instructional strategies to meet those learning needs. I look forward to sharing this safari with you.




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14 responses to “Second Language Acquisition and My Mature Brain

  1. Here is my latest blog posts on learning Swahili at a mature age.

  2. I enjoyed your post. It’s always fascinating to hear about how various people approach acquisition of other languages. I am American and my wife is Dutch. She came to the U.S. when she was 18. She had a solid foundation in English and gradually (over a period of about 3 years) became proficient, then fluent — more fluent than most Americans I know. 🙂 We have four kids and they have all learned Dutch, which has been fascinating to watch. I think your point about practice is very true. Kids are much less reserved about making mistakes and will keep trying until they get it right. This is one of the reasons I think they seem to learn languages more quickly and easily than adults.

    My own journey with learning other languages began in middle school, when I began studying French and Spanish simultaneously. I studied them both through high school and although that did not make me fluent, due to the lack of true immersion, it did give me a very strong foundation in all the grammar. I think that was very important.

    Since then, I have learned Spanish and Portuguese fluently, having lived and done business in both Brazil and Costa Rica for extended periods. I wouldn’t say I’m fluent in Dutch, but I do understand it very well. French I’ve forgotten almost completely, due to lack of practice.

    Learning languages, in my opinion, is a great way to expand your horizons. This is particularly true if, as you did, you make the effort to go to another country and immerse yourself in the language and the culture. It’s a tremendously rewarding experience and the only way to truly learn a language.

    Thanks for a great post.


    • Thank You Paul, your own journey mirrors my own in many ways. Children do continue to make mistakes and therefore increase their fluency and proficiency at a fast pace. I have to stop people who try to stop me at every mistake and lecture me. If you can understand me then please respond and I will get the correction in your response. I am looking forward to learning more African and Asian languages. The structure and grammar is fascinating. The Kiswahili people enjoy teaching their language. They take great pleasure in my efforts. So I don’t hesitate to pull out my book and practice.

  3. jeffrey barlian

    How can one accelerate second language acquisition? Through practice and exposure? The more the faster? How do you view learning second or foreign language through popular songs?

    • When acquiring any language you have to make the input comprehensible. This is a part of developing receptive language, understanding what you hear. Then you develop expressive language to respond to what you hear and to meet your needs and wants. Music relaxes the brain and enters at a much deeper level, bypassing anxiety. So you are able to make meaning out of the words that I embedded into the pleasant sounds. It is a positive experience because there are no demands. You are in a relaxed state enjoying the sounds and the meaning comes through in an unforced natural way if you allow it.

  4. Each time I get to know something new about you, I just feel lucky having got the chance to know you! You are an amazing person and I respect you in many ways; as a researcher, a teacher, a mother and a human being. You are a true source of motivation and inspiration to me.
    I agree with you in what you said about acquiring a second language. I think that practice is the best shortcut, motivation is also important. So, if a person is motivated enough and gives due importance to practice, the result will be satisfactory.
    This happened to me too. There was a Spanish girl with whom I fell in love. I didn’t speak Spanish and she did not speak any of the languages I spoke. Solution? I had to learn Spanish. First we would talk on MSN messenger, and I would use Google translation for every word I received from her and for every word I wanted to say!! It was hectic, and the electronic translation is just not that accurate. However, my motivation did not let me down, I persevered, tried to learn the language in any possible way, I read electronic Spanish newspapers and Spanish short stories.
    When my level improved, I started translating news about my favorite soccer team Real Madrid into Arabic and post the translated news in a forum dedicated to Arab Real Madrid fans, this experience was of a great help. Newspapers provide authentic material, and the pieces of news I translated were very interesting to me as they were related to my favorite team. This was also a sort of project based learning since my translated pieces of news had a large audience who read and commented on them.

    Well, again, let me bow in respect to you dear teacher and mother.
    Your son 🙂

    • I like the idea of using football to learn language. Perhaps I can set up an exchange between some American students and Kiswahili students and they can discuss sports. It would be wonderful for them to do research in newspapers and share news. You are brilliant my son and give me great ideas.

      • Abdemjid Seghir

        An American calling soccer football 😛 That’s amazigng mom!! 😀
        Yes, I think it’s a very good idea.
        I think I can provide you with more ideas if you want to!

      • It makes sense yes! You kick the ball around with your foot “football” Thank You. I am going to encourage a pen pal program with the students here.

  5. I´ve really enjoyed this post especially your closing remarks. It´s so true that we need to feel like beginners to be able to sympathize with our students and find better ways to help them. Looking foward to your learning about your safari!

  6. Great story! It’s amazing isn’t it, how many people try conventional language courses, give up, then do it themselves.

  7. Well, I’m Pedro from Facebook. I shall tell you my history.
    I’m Brazilian, so my mother tongue is portuguese, since I was a kid I read very much, loads of books, and one day I realized that I was losing the deep purpose that the original book have. I wanted to read the books in their original language, and I always have been fascinated with english, then I taught myself, and spanish too, ( I have no problem with Spanish because is similar to portuguese) and Now I’m teaching myself German and french, and after i’ll do greek and some finnish.

    P.S. I have some problem with the german declension, can you give me atip to how acquire German and french quickly?

    Thank you so much.

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