Foreign Language Learning for Adults

A Step by Step guide to reading in a new language.

frog dancing

Think back to your formative years, and you will likely see a big difference in the reading material you enjoyed then to what you enjoy today. This is because the adult learning process begins with the basics. In our childhood, we spent our time reading small, uncomplicated sentences accompanied by descriptive images (or even sounds!). We underwent this slow and steady incline to achieve intermediate levels when we were learning how to read. It began with picture books, then small chapter books, and eventually full chapter books! The best part of all is even with all of the technical hurdles, we had fun doing it. Learning for adults can be a lot more challenging.

After you put in all of those years of work, likely, you can now read anything you want. The critical period is over, but your childhood brain has now grown into an adult brain. Your reading skills are constantly improving in everyday life, and anything that seems complicated now won’t be for long. It can seem intimidating going from such a point of mastery to the beginner level all over again, but this is what we must do to learn new languages. We are once again in the classroom – welcome to adult language learning.

However, the best thing about learning languages as an adult learner is: you have already done it before. You have all of the tools to sit down and start learning today already. But you might find yourself asking: where do I start? What methods can I implement to aid me in my quest of learning a new language? A 2015 study from Silpakorn University observes that there are 6 methods called the “Eclectic Method” of adult learning. It is suggested that implementing this wide range of methods is highly encouraged in classroom teaching, and essential to adults learning a new language. If even one step is skipped you could find yourself severely stunted in the learning process. These methods are as follows:

The Eclectic Method of Reading

Alphabetic Method

This is the first and most important method of reading. The student needs to identify the relationship between letters and sound in order to make sense of them. This is essential for speaking in everyday life for all native speakers. While many languages share similar alphabets, learning them extensively is essential. Many letters use different pronunciations depending on the phonetics of the language. In order to implement this method effectively, you must:

  • Practice the relationship between letters and sound
  • Focus on a mixture of new and familiar sounds, combining them as you go
  • Focus on letters that are familiar first then gradually increase the difficulty

Phrase Method

The Phrase method (also known as the Phonic Method) is a reversed version of the Alphabetic Method. This is where sounds are identified and explored first before identifying the letter. This is often used in classrooms because the Phonic Method is best used in groups.

Reading is usually a solitary act, which doesn’t encourage the act of “reading aloud” very often. But studies have shown that knowing what words sound like while you’re learning them fast-tracks the learning process. The written word and the spoken word are so commonly interchanged that it is essential to master them both at the same time. This can be done in the following ways:

  • Learn the rules of pronunciation by sounding everything out
  • Imitate/repeat as often as necessary
  • Decode phonemes and graphemes (o, ou, ough, oo, oh)

Syllabic Method

This method is commonly implemented in games like Charades. When the word is too long, students are asked to identify separate parts of the word first. By separating syllables into smaller words, it helps the learner implement learned information to acquire new information. For example:

  • Try separating the word into small single-syllable words like cat-as-trop-hic
  • Separate the large word into sounds, not words like ca-ta-stroph-ic
  • After you have practiced the vowels and sounds, read the full word several times

Word Method

This method of learning how to read is focused on pronouncing the full word (to the best of your ability) and identifying it. Applying meaning to words is the most effective way for a student to remember it long term. Distinguishing words from each other this way doesn’t always have to come after the previous steps. Sometimes adult language learners will find similarities between their native language and the foreign word. In order to implement the word technique you can:

  • Study/imitate your pronunciation
  • Repeat it to yourself multiple times until its near-fluent
  • Assign its meaning and imagine it in its context

Sentence Method

This method (also known as the Context Method) is all about recognition. Once you have learned how to pronounce and assign meaning to words, you must learn to identify them alongside others. A sentence needs to be treated as a “unit of recognition”, where you identify the meaning behind every word on its own, and then build the bigger meaning of the sentence in your mind. When learning a new language, this can be particularly difficult for the human brain. But a few ways to speed up the process include:

  • Writing down each word and defining them first “I” “am” “going” “to” “the” “store”
  • Splitting the sentence up into statements such as “I am” “going to” “the store”
  • Summarizing the sentence into simpler terms with alternate words: “they’re going shopping”

Story Method

Once you have mastered these 5 fundamentals, you will soon find it easier to attribute meaning to your base language. This is the Story Method – which is the final step in the Eclectic Method. Implementing this last method will ensure you not only know how to read words, but understand them and digest the information. In order to fully master the Story Method, try the following steps:

  • Read the sentences you understand and highlight the ones you do not
  • Define the Who, What, Where, and Why in each paragraph
  • Summarize entire pages of information into a few sentences at the end


frog fishing

Additional Methods

Know you know the basics of language acquisition through reading, you can begin supplementing these skills with some supplementary activities. These exercises can be implemented at any stage of your learning process. But they are most effective and useful when they accompany the Eclectic Method. These supplementary tasks focus more on interpretation. They help you decipher where the information is coming from and where it’s going. Without these tasks, you would be able to read in another language, but never truly think in another language.

Reading Aloud

Many situations in our daily lives require reading the words aloud. It can be beneficial for adult brains trying to find mistakes in something they have just written. It can also be useful for people sharing information between themselves, or to a large group. Whatever the situation, reading phrases out loud has shown to have many brain benefits in the retention of your vocabulary and grammar.

This tool’s effectiveness is proof alone that speech and reading are so closely intertwined. Learning how to do both at the same time is essential to your retention and accuracy. Even for those who simply want to read a language and not speak it, reading out loud greatly improves our understanding of the language as a whole.


Deciding what’s useful information to gather and what’s not is another essential part of reading. If you were to open a dictionary for a word, you wouldn’t read the entire page before finding it, you would skim through until it jumped out at you. This skill is useful for adults learning how to read because it means you’re able to decode phrases and titles to suit your needs. This is a useful exercise to try on your own with any reading material you have on hand.

The reason why this is such a useful tool is it can be used at any stage of your learning process. Learning how to skim gives you the knowledge base to prioritize your dialogue/vocabulary so you learn the useful things first like grammar rules and day-to-day sentences.


Once you have learned how to summarize the story with our fundamental methods, then comes the fun part. In order to fully digest the material, you must have the cognitive ability to decipher some meaning from it, whether that be abstract or literal. This is an intermediate reading skill that we often take for granted in our daily lives. Decide what is important about the reading to find the moral of the story, lesson, or conclusion.


  • Do you agree or disagree with what you have just read?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • Was the writing itself clear and concise?
  • What about the author’s tone?

These are all questions you can ask yourself when you have fully mastered reading in another language. It may seem counterintuitive to be critical of something that is new to you. But learning good writing from bad is a strong indicator that you have surpassed understanding. The ability level to critique and evaluate has mastery to it, meaning you have reached the point of true literacy in the language.

frog book

Frequently Asked Questions

How can an adult learn a foreign language?

Some adults may prefer to learn independently with the help of a book or online course, while others may prefer a more immersive experience with a tutor or in a classroom setting. The key is to find a method that is enjoyable and effective, as this will increase the chances of successfully mastering the new language.

Can adults learn a new language fluently?

Research has shown that adults have the ability to learn a new language fluently, although it may take more effort than children. A number of factors can affect how quickly and easily an adult can learn a new language, including age, motivation, previous exposure to the language, and learning environment. Older adults tend to have more difficulty than younger adults, but this is not insurmountable.

Why is it so hard for adults to learn a new language?

Adults often find it more difficult to learn a new language than children do. There are a number of reasons for this. First, children are less likely to be self-conscious and more likely to take risks when trying out a new language. They are also less likely to be worried about making mistakes. Second, children’s brains are more flexible than adults’ brains, and they are therefore better able to pick up new grammar rules and vocabulary.

How can adults learn to speak English?

Many educational institutions offer evening classes which can be fit around work or other commitments. There are also a number of private language schools which offer intensive courses designed to help adults achieve fluency in English.

Another option is to use online resources. There are many websites and apps which offer lessons and activities specifically for adults who are learning English. These can be a convenient and flexible way to fit language learning into a busy lifestyle.

What are some acquisition barriers an adult might find when learning a foreign language?

Many adults have full-time jobs and families, which leaves little time for language classes or studying. In addition, adults often have more responsibilities and commitments than children, which can make it difficult to find the motivation to learn a new language.

Another barrier is previous knowledge. Adults often have set ideas about grammar and vocabulary, which can make it difficult to learn a new language that has different rules. 

Is it possible to learn a language as an adult and not have an accent?

While it is true that adults are less likely than children to achieve native-level fluency in a second language, it is possible for adults to learn a second language without developing an accent. There are a number of factors that can influence how well an adult learns a second language, including motivation, aptitude, and exposure to the target language. However, with sufficient dedication and practice, it is possible for any adult to learn a second language without developing an accent.

Do teenagers learn languages faster than adults?

The question of whether teenagers learn languages faster than adults has been the subject of debate among linguists for many years. Some research indicates that there may be some truth to the idea that teenagers are more adept at picking up new languages than adults. For example, a study by the University of Washington found that teenagers were better able to correctly identify foreign-accented speech than adults.

How does age affect a person for foreign language learning?

It is a commonly held belief that children are better language learners than adults. This is because they are thought to have greater linguistic flexibility and an easier time acquiring new sounds.

However, research has shown that age does not necessarily have a significant effect on foreign language learning. In fact, both children and adults can be equally successful at learning a new language, provided they receive the proper instruction and practice.

How to Read Foreign Languages with Lilly

While reading a foreign language is a skill you learn by yourself, it doesn’t always have to be.

Looking for a partner? LillyPad is designed to aid you in all of the methods mentioned in this article and much more! Try this app if you’re looking for a digital supplement to your adult learning process, without scrambling to find a partner or cumbersome textbook.

Learn from History – Follow the Science – Listen to the Experts

What’s the one thing that makes LillyPad so special? Lilly! She is an Artificial Intelligent English tutor, and has people talking English all over the world! Lilly makes improving your English easy. With Lilly you can read in four different ways, and you can read just about anything you love. And learning with Lilly, well that’s what you call liberating!

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At LillyPad, everything we do is focused on delivering a personalized journey that is meaningful and life changing for our members. LillyPad isn’t just the next chapter in English learning…

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Bethany MacDonald

Bethany MacDonald

Bethany MacDonald has contributed articles since 2020. As their Blog Lead, she specialises in informative pieces on culture, education, and language learning

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