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When it comes to learning a new language, our eyes and facial muscles are just as important to acquiring a new language as our ears.   This is because we watch how people articulate the sounds that are unfamiliar to us, associate what is appropriate to say by observing body language and the reactions of others in various interactive situations and use the data we collect to express ourselves in the language we are trying to master.

In order to do this, we need consistent, repeated exposure to language patterns such as what, when, how and where we hear certain sounds, words and expressions before we can understand that: 1) some sounds matter and others don’t; 2) how to make the meaningful sounds; and 3) to finally utter our first words. For adults, it takes a while to be able to differentiate the old from the new, but eventually we learn to identify new speech sounds, articulate them and, finally, communicate in a way that native speakers can understand.  The process is slow and, unlike for children, it’s a conscious effort for adults.

While adults focus on how to communicate proficiently from the first words spoken, children focus on getting their message across–no matter how they do it.  In other words, children aren’t monitoring what they say before they say it like adults, nor are they as self-conscious about making a mistake since listeners often help them express what they want to say afterward.  Because children using receive supportive instruction and acceptance for their efforts, they are less afraid of making a mistake and, thus, are able to practice and learn how to communicate in the target language faster than adults.

If adults were as given the same response from native speakers in foreign countries or more opportunities to practice their skills in the same, “safe” learning environment as children–and see mistakes as learning opportunities instead of reflections of their intelligence–then adults would likely learn their new language at the same rate as children.

In fact, adults often have unrealistic expectations for how long it takes to master a new language.   They also live and work among native speakers who are less patient and helpful when nonnative English language learners express themselves “imperfectly.”   many to lose confidence in their ability to communicate successfully with native speakers.

How can native speakers help immigrants and refugees improve their language skills?  First, we should be compassionate, patient, and welcoming toward them and meet them half-way in the interaction rather than expect them to do all of the work for creating understanding between two people.  Communities, family, relatives, friends, co-workers, customer service representatives and others can also enable learners to become fluent more quickly by welcoming them into conversations, helping them express what they want to say, and being patient with them as they think through how to articulate their idea, opinion, request, question or comment.

If an adult learner is struggling to say something, listeners should respond by creating a safe and advantageous learning environment using appropriate assistive gestures like showing interest in what they have to say and waiting silently while they collect their thoughts.  Treating persons this way will enable them to learn English faster and be less timid or self-conscious as they work toward becoming competent speakers, writers, readers and listeners.

Language is complex, and so are people. You never know what you will learn from someone, especially someone with a different background than you.  I hope you will consider reaching out to an immigrant, refugee or international student in friendship–for their benefit and yours.