It’s easy to feel a bit jealous of children who grew up to be bilingual. They can speak two or more languages fluently, and they didn’t even have to try. Living in Quebec for four years led me to meet hundreds of people whose parents had brought them up to speak both French and English perfectly, and they don’t even seem to bat an eyelid at this impressive skill.
Children are our inspirations as language learners. They soak languages up like sponges, absorbing the necessary grammar and vocabulary without relying on textbooks, apps or courses. But although the developed brain of an adult has a much tougher time learning a language, we shouldn’t use this as an excuse to give up. We can actually draw inspiration from the natural disposition of a child and use it to learn languages faster.
Why do children learn languages faster?
It might amaze you to know that children actually start learning languages in the womb. An astonishing study conducted by scientists in Washington, Helsinki and Stockholm concluded that foetuses develop the ability to listen around 30 weeks into a pregnancy, and are later able to recall words that were spoken to them at this time. So think about that next time you’re babbling at a lady’s bump. The little fella hears you, and he’s deeply patronised by your cutesy nonsense.
Children are born with a natural duty to absorb information, and in the first few years of their lives they’re pretty much hard-wired to learn language. They do this unconsciously, using the deep motor area of their brain, in the same way that they learn to stand, walk and use their hands. It’s through an imitation of what they’re hearing that the child starts to understand language before they even hit the conscious learning stage.
Brain researchers have found that language learning systems within the brain grow rapidly from the age of 6 until puberty. It’s at this point that they begin to shut down. It’s all just natural order. By the time you reach adolescence you should be able to speak and comprehend a language well enough to get by, and so the brain moves on to other priorities like empathy, judgment and disdain for authority (just kidding about the last one).
This is a real shame for all of us who learn languages out of passion and a desire to travel, because this is the earliest part of life we can realistically develop these interests. But brain chemistry is only part of the reason children pick up languages so easily. When you start to look at the other factors, you’ll realise that there’s a lot we can learn from these little geniuses.
The importance of listening
There’s an unfortunate tendency for absolute beginners to a language to study grammatical concepts before they ‘graduate’ onto trying to comprehend natural speech. Young children, on the other hand, are listening to the language in all its glory long before they attempt their first word. This allows them to pick up on tonality and rhythm before they start associating words with things.
What we can learn from this is that listening is crucial to learning languages faster and should be practiced right from the beginning of our study. And while it’s easy to pass off listening as a passive activity, the best results will come from active listening. Instead of leaving a podcast on in the background, you should think about what’s being said and try to understand it. Even though a child’s brain is working unconsciously at first, it’s still listening actively. Children are curious beings and they’re trying to figure out what’s being said without really thinking much about it.
Have no fear
We all think young children are hilarious when they speak – even moreso if they say something unpredictable or out of place. But this fearless lack of regard for mistakes is not only cute, it’s seriously inspirational to us as language learners. Children just say stuff without really thinking about it, and when we correct them that’s how they learn. Eventually, the things they are saying make sense.
As adults we’ve learned to fear the judgment of others for our mistakes, and this seriously hinders our freedom to practice speaking other languages. Often we won’t say what we want to say unless we’re 100% sure that it’s correct. In other cases, we spend too much time rearranging things in our mind and going over it to check that it’s perfect before actually coming out with it. These habits are huge enemies to reaching fluency. We miss out on the value of trial and error in learning languages faster.
Next opportunity you get to chat with a native speaker, dive in with the reckless spirit of a child. You’ll make mistakes. But you’ll also speak two or three times the amount you were speaking before. And that means you’ll improve two or three times as fast.
Being comfortable with making a fool of yourself is an important life skill, and the sooner you can apply it to languages the better.
Repeat, repeat, repeat
If you’ve spent any time at all around young children, you’ll know they have a tendency to want to hear the same songs over and over again. It’s usually the ones that make you want to shoot yourself in the head. But every time you reluctantly replay their favourite video, they’re improving their ability to recall these words and concepts in the future and apply them to different scenarios.
Adults tend to suffer from a lack of patience, which is kind of the evil opposite to a child’s seemingly insatiable desire to experience the same thing again, and again, and again. Repetitive learning has existed for a long time in traditional language teaching, but it quickly bores us to tears.
If you’re serious about learning languages faster, you have to accept that repetition is vital to our learning. Look through your flashcards every day, even if you think you know those words now. It doesn’t hurt. And if you’re watching a video to practice your comprehension, watch it over and over until you understand every single word. This might seem painful at first, but you’ll progress quickly and soon won’t have to do it anymore.
The bottom line is that speaking a language should become a habit. Like picking your nose or swearing. You just can’t stop doing it. Wouldn’t that be great?
When babies are born, they’re immersed in everything and they just can’t get enough. Everything is new and exciting and must be experienced. They want to be like you, older and wiser and more powerful. That’s why young children are so fascinated by you and they copy you.
By immersing yourself in another language and another culture, you’ll connect with this line of thinking. You’ll want to be like the people around you, chatting away effortlessly in Spanish or French. Joking around and ripping each other. The way they say things will start to rub off on you. You’ll start to throw what you learned in class out of the window and just say things like they do.
This is exactly what a young child is doing too – absorbing and adapting through immersion. Immersion is powerful because it’s completely natural. You’re applying what you’ve learned to real situations, some of which are unexpected, rather than approaching everything methodically. If you’re unable to spend time in a foreign country right now, at least try to immerse yourself in movies and any native speakers you have close to hand. When you drop yourself into the situation, it’ll be harder not to reach fluency.
So let’s recap. What can we learn from children in order to learn languages faster?
- Listen, listen, listen. Right from the beginning of your study.
- Roll back the years to when you didn’t care. And just speak!
- Go over things again. And again. And again.
- Buy a one-way ticket and don’t come back. For a while, at least.
There’s some good news for us as “social learners”. Our motivation is more powerful than those who learn to get a job promotion or fulfill a school requirement. In linguistics, this social approach to learning is called integrative motivation. This is what motivates a child – the desire to interact with and even emulate the speaker of the target language.
Studies have shown that an adult whose motivation more closely matches that of a child is less likely to give up on learning a language. We can safely assume that they also learn languages faster, and that’s really encouraging for us.