Research shows that children are better language learners than adults, but don’t let this discourage you.
Recent research on the human brain has found that the changes in brain chemistry needed to learn another language are possible at any age age, from birth to the elderly years. So it’s never too late to learn a language!
There has been an explosion of research in recent years on how bilingual children learn, ranging from how they use memory and learn new vocabulary to how they switch between languages to express different emotions.
What Bilingual Children Can Teach Us About Adult Language Learning
This research can tell us a lot not just about how children learn, but how adults learn, too. By examining how children so masterfully learn languages, we can discover some ways to improve our own learning as adults.
How Bilingual Children Learn
The early years of childhood are a time when all children—monolingual or bilingual—rapidly learn language skills.
Through ongoing immersion and practice, they begin to understand what words mean and how to use them in the proper contexts.
Mommy points and says, “Let’s play with the ball!” The toddler picks up the ball and says, “Bah.” Mommy excitedly replies, “Yes, ball!” Eventually “bah” becomes “ball,” and the child has learned a new word.
“At first glance, the process of learning a language can seem incredibly daunting,” says Skott Freedman, a professor at Ithaca College. “Yet this potentially arduous task is typically executed with little effort by children barely a year old. In fact, studies show that children can learn a word in as little as one exposure.”
Freedman has found that it doesn’t take much more effort for children to learn two languages than it does for them to learn one. Young children’s brains are designed to pay attention to language cues and develop language skills, so they can learn two languages almost as easily as they can learn one.
Bilingual children use language in purpose-driven ways with a focus on communication rather than “getting it right.”
In her book “Raising Bilingual Children,” Carey Myles notes that during everyday conversations, caregivers naturally focus on the message of children’s language more than in how its delivered. When a child says, “I thirsty,” the caregiver doesn’t spend much time correcting the child or demanding that she say, “I am thirsty.” Instead, she responds by getting the child something to drink.
Professors Kendall King and Alison Mackey echo this point in their book, “The Bilingual Edge.” They say that children’s language learning is “pleasurable, intimate and interwoven with everyday life” and suggest playful, interactive language learning activities that are connected with routine things like eating or getting dressed.
What this means for adults:
- Find ways to immerse yourself. Think of all the input a bilingual child gets and try to emulate this constant exposure in your life. The more you surround yourself with input in your target language, the faster and better you’ll learn. Listen to foreign language music, watch TV shows, read the news in your target language and talk with people.
- Seek out real-life practice. Find a conversation partner or conversation club, join an online language exchange website and visit stores or restaurants where people speak your target language. Your goal should be to participate in two-way conversational exchanges where you can communicate with real people.
- Make it fun. Children don’t sit around looking at flashcards (all the time)! They play dress-up and drive toy trucks and run around the park. Find ways to make your language learning fun, too. Read or watch videos about things that interest you—whether that’s sewing, baseball or woodworking—and make friends with native speakers who share your interests so you can practice speaking while going for a run or knitting together.
Kids Writing vs. Speaking
Learning to read is different from learning to speak.
Bilingual children learn to speak through everyday immersion, but they need explicit instruction in order to learn to read and write in more than one language.
Children learn to read best when they have an understanding and familiarity with the culture and context associated with a piece of writing. Schema theory suggests that children who aren’t familiar with the context may have trouble making accurate predictions about what will come next in a story, and being able to make predictions is important to reading success.
Consider the phrase, “Dumbo is an elephant with big ears.” A child who’s familiar with the story of Dumbo can quickly read this sentence. Even if the child has never seen the words “elephant” and “ears,” he can make quick guesses about what words they might be, since he knows that Dumbo is an elephant and that big ears are his defining feature.
On the other hand, a child who doesn’t know anything about Dumbo will have more trouble understanding this sentence. She’ll have to “sound out” every word in the sentence and may second-guess herself even if she reads the words correctly.
Because of the difficulties that arise when children don’t have the cultural understanding needed to understand a piece of writing, some schools have found that non-native English speakers learn to read in English better when they’re provided with background or cultural information prior to reading a text.
What this means for adults:
- Improve your reading skills by learning about current events and culture first. No matter how good your language skills are, you won’t fully understand a foreign language text if you don’t understand the context behind it. Start by familiarizing yourself —by reading or listening to material in your native language—with the culture and current events of the people who speak your target language. This will improve your reading in your target language and is likely to (re-)inspire your love of another culture, place and language!
- Do more listening and speaking. Bilingual children typically learn through speaking and listening and need explicit instruction in reading and writing, but it’s often the opposite for adults. Adults typically learn with written material like textbooks, dictionaries and workbooks. Seek out opportunities to supplement your book learning with opportunities to speak and listen. Some textbooks come with audio CDs or provide access to online audio files, and you can find many opportunities to listen to music or watch videos.
- Learn with FluentU. FluentU provides foreign language videos that native speakers actually watch, along with interactive subtitles, translations and even active learning tools like multimedia flashcards, quizzes and custom vocabulary lists. Use the content here as conversation fodder when practicing your language skills with your friends, teachers, tutors, conversation partners and fellow language learners!
Bilingual Learning Challenges
Not everything comes easily for kids! Even they have a hard time with some aspects of language learning.
For example, bilingual children typically go through a period where they use words from both languages in the same sentences. A young child might say something like, “I want some agua” or “Let’s vaminos!”
Grammar rules can also be mixed up. A child who’s learning English (which has a subject-verb-object structure) and a language like Turkish (which has a subject-object-verb structure) might say something like, “I want to store go,” instead of “I want to go to the store.”
Bilingual children may also experience a “silent period” where they understand the language spoken to them but do not speak it. A child who’s spoken to primarily in English may understand the French her mother speaks but not actively respond in French, particularly if she knows that her mother also understands English. After more exposure, she’ll eventually start to speak in French, but it may take time.
What this means for adults:
- Focus on grammar structures. You can’t easily turn off the grammar rules your brain is wired to use. That’s why it’s important to learn how the grammar structures work in your target language. This will help you be conscious of when you need to do things differently. And if you’re not comfortable with grammar in general, consider getting a book about your native language’s grammar so you can understand how it compares to the new grammar you’re learning.
- Stay silent for a little while, if you need to. Frustrating as it may be, it’s normal to understand what’s being said to you but be incapable of producing a fluent response. Recognize that your speaking capacity will lag behind your listening capacity, and pat yourself on the back for the excellent listening comprehension skills you’re developing! Just don’t stay silent for too long. Practice is the only way to develop the ability—and confidence—to say exactly what you want to say.
Children Are Resilient
Part of the reason children are so good at language learning is because they aren’t afraid of what others think. They’re curious about everything and enthusiastic to try out the new words they hear.
Children also use language as a tool to achieve goals, rather than an end in and of itself. They don’t care about learning to speak Italian fluently or learning to say “hello” in Japanese. They simply want something and will use whatever method they can to communicate their needs and desires. A child is highly motivated to speak when he needs to do so to tell someone he wants a drink of milk or get a toy his older brother is playing with.
What this means for adults:
- Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Remember that some of the best learning happens after you’ve made a very memorable mistake.
- Cultivate an innate sense of curiosity and enthusiasm for learning. Learning should be fun! Forget about the outcomes or the time it’s taking you to achieve them. Focus on what you enjoy about the language you’re learning.
- Admit when you don’t know something. It’s okay if you don’t know how to conjugate a certain verb or which tense to use in a particular situation. Native speakers are usually more than happy to help you learn their language, so go ahead and ask for help!
- Think about your goals. But don’t stop at thinking. Put yourself in situations where you need to speak your target language in order to get thing done. Don’t get so caught up in studying vocabulary lists that you forget why you’re learning the language. Think about what your learning goals are and how you plan to use this language in the future.
Learning another language is difficult but also can be—even should be—a lot of fun. By acting a bit more like a bilingual child, you can improve your learning and make sure that you enjoy the process.
And One More Thing…
If you’re eager to get started on that process right away, you’ll love learning with FluentU. FluentU makes it possible to learn languages from music videos, commercials, news and inspiring talks.
With FluentU, you learn real languages—the same way that real people speak them. FluentU has a wide variety of videos, like movie trailers, funny commercials and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.
Didn’t catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover over or tap on the subtitles to instantly view definitions.
You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s “quiz mode.” Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It uses that vocab to give you a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples.
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