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Stumbling Blocks to Learning a Second Language

June 25, 2024

Natalie Kim

Learning a new language as an adult can be challenging.

Different studies have attempted to define the best age for learning a new language. Some studies have found that the critical period for learning a second language effectively, particularly in mastering grammar, extends up to the age of 17 or 18.[1] They further show that to achieve native-like fluency, people need to begin learning a language by the age of 10.[2] On the other hand, other studies show that adults have some advantages in learning a new language. Adults are better than children in grasping semantic relations, grammatical association, and other linguistic capabilities because of their highly developed cognitive systems and learning skills and experiences.[3]

What these differing studies have in common, though, is that while it may seem challenging for many adults to reach native speaker fluency, everyone, regardless of age, is capable of learning a second language effectively and successfully. It all depends on an individual’s personal goals and practical needs in language competency. Here, success may not always be measured by passing grammar tests, but rather by the ability to communicate and build relationships with people from different cultures. Here are four common stumbling blocks for adult language learners and how to overcome them.

1. Unclear Goals

Setting clear, specific goals is crucial at the beginning of your language learning journey and throughout the process. Ask yourself why you want to learn the language. Instead of vague answers like, "for effective intercultural ministry" or "to communicate better," identify specific, actionable goals. Your purpose will determine your learning methods and outcomes. For instance, if you’re teaching the Bible at a seminary, you may need to reach an academic level of proficiency. If you're engaging with local communities, conversational fluency might be sufficient. Practical and achievable goals will guide your learning and help you measure your progress.

2. Ego and Social Anxiety

Unlike children, adults often struggle with the social and psychological aspects of the language learning process. The fear of making mistakes or being judged can be significant barriers. It’s essential to find a supportive language community where you feel safe to make mistakes and try new things without fear of judgment. Some may find easier to practice with children or older people and in a one-to-one setting or a casual setting with different groups of people. Embrace the new aspects of yourself that emerge as you learn a new language. Many adult learners feel inauthentic about speaking and behaving differently in a new culture. Learning a new language requires a new way of communication, including body language, tone, and social and relational dynamics. This process of adapting doesn’t change your core identity but enriches it, helping you integrate into a new culture and language.

3. Not Dedicating Enough Time

Think of your language learning like studying mathematics. Math is a broad field of study, encompassing fundamentals of logic and reasoning, theoretical math, practical applications, and more. It’s about logical patterns based on a numeric or symbolic language. Similarly, when you learn a second language, you need to have a basic understanding of the letters, words, grammar, and structure of that language. Learning a second language can be viewed as learning new logic, patterns, and meanings, which demands focused study and memorization. Everyone has different learning styles – some learn best through hands-on experiences and social interaction, while others prefer independent, structured study. Regardless of your style, consistent and strategic time management is key. Make language learning a priority and incorporate it into your daily routine to see significant progress.

4. Putting Off Learning

Learning a new language is a beautiful and rewarding endeavor. It opens doors to understanding and appreciating different cultures and languages, reflecting God’s design for humanity to image Him. As you embark on this journey, remember that our God communicates through human language, and this endeavor can deepen your relationship with Him and enhance your ability to share the good news of our Savior. Be encouraged, persevere, and trust that your efforts in language learning will bear fruit, both in your personal growth and in your relationship and ministry.

By overcoming these stumbling blocks and setting clear, achievable goals, you will persevere in learning a new language. Remember, the core of language learning is not simply in mastering a language but lies in the learning process itself, which is a lifelong practice and lifestyle meant to be enjoyable.

[1] Anne Trafton, “Cognitive Scientists Define Critical Period for Learning Language,” MIT News, May 1, 2018,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mary Schleppegrell, “The Older Language Learner,” 1987, ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and Linguistics Washington DC., September 1987, ERIC (ED287313).


Natalie Kim is communication and project coordinator at CultureBound. She has led culture courses for long-term missions. Currently, she is directing the Culture Tree Project for TCKs. Natalie earned her EdD in intercultural education from Western Seminary.



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