“Children are like sponges.” We’ve all heard it before. It’s more than a cliche at this point. Whether it be learning their mother tongue or learning what not to touch in the kitchen, kids seem to have a special ability that enables them to cut the proverbial line of hardship and frustration that anyone who has tried to learn a language is all too familiar with. But what is it about kids that makes them so good at picking up their language? Are they really better than us?
Well, the short answer is, no. They’re not. But the methods they use for picking up a new language aren’t the same as adults’. Ever seen an infant trying to memorize animal names with flashcards? There’s a reason you haven’t.
The good news is a lot of these “techniques” are learnable strategies that can be implemented into your own language-learning adventure, placing you on a fast-track to fluency.
They’re not afraid of making mistakes.
Kids don’t get down on themselves if they say the wrong word or if they’re misunderstood. They learn from the experience and move on. That’s one of the major differences we see between child and adult learners–the older we get, the more we worry about perfection and how what we say is heard by others. Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing, but when it comes to making important progress in your language learning, especially when just starting out, it will only serve as a barrier. So stop worrying, grab a notebook, and make as many mistakes as possible–just try not to make the same one twice!
They start speaking from the get-go.
Children don’t waste time studying grammar rules and spelling when they’re learning their mother tongue–all of that comes later. Right off the bat, they’re making sounds, trying their best to mimic all of the chatter they come into contact with on a daily basis. And as soon as they start to see that what they’re saying is being received and understood by the people around them, it becomes almost impossible to shut them up. Now we’re not telling you to throw out your grammar book–you’ll need that, too. But the natural urge to study first and speak second is going the way of the paper dictionary. So quit waiting and start speaking! You might surprise yourself.
They don’t learn hand-picked words from a textbook.
Kids have the advantage of getting to hear real language spoken by native speakers in a variety of contexts. They’re constantly bombarded with language about everything around them: people, animals, toys, TV shows, music, buildings, vehicles, etc. To put it simply, kids are immersed in their target language. Everything they do is in their target language. Their feelings, their schoolwork, their interests. One of the best ways for adults to adapt this to their own studies is to find a hobby and learn about it in their target language. If you love watching soccer, catch up on the latest news in Spanish. If your dream is to travel to Tokyo, check out a travel blog written in Japanese by a local. YouTube is a great place to find videos about any topic in any language–you’ll find both educational and entertaining videos made for language learners as well as for actual speakers of the language. It doesn’t get any easier than that!
They don’t learn grammar, they learn patterns.
By mimicking those around them, and focusing more on what to say as opposed to why it’s said, children quickly become adept at picking up on language patterns. And since grammar is the systematic organization of a language’s patterns, when it comes time to communicate an idea that they haven’t heard used before, kids draw on the patterns in their mental database to think of how to express it. The process is entirely unconscious for kids since they navigate a demanding environment daily in their target language. So unless we have a similar, immersive environment to push us, most adults will need to take a more conscious approach. That means being aware of what sentences you encounter along with your studies. When you hear something new that catches your ear, write it down and make a point to use it again in a slightly modified way. Change the object, say it in the past tense, anything you can do to change it will help you start to cement the pattern in your brain. A daily journal is a perfect way to do this.
The process of picking up a new language is anything but glamorous–your journey is certain to be one full of bumps, hiccups, misunderstandings, and (hopefully only mild) embarrassments. But by taking a more proactive approach, learning from the little geniuses around you, and creating as many opportunities to practice as possible, you’ll find yourself on the path to polyglotism in no time! Just don’t forget to enjoy the ride–after all, that’s what being a kid’s all about.