Research shows that young children are much better at learning languages than us - they learn languages naturally and unconsciously, and they make it look astonishingly easy in comparison to our own language learning endeavours, but just how do they do it?
In this post, we take a look at how young children learn languages, and what methods we can incorporate into our language learning practice.
Children typically learn a language more through listening and speaking than reading and writing, whereas adults generally learn by studying written materials like textbooks and dictionaries, and often neglect listening - this is part of the reason why children excel at language learning in comparison.
Without listening, we would have no building blocks from which we can build our own repertoire of sounds, and these sounds are essential to using a language effectively.
Listening is so important to learning a language that babies who have hearing problems do not fully develop their language capabilities.
Hearing loss has an adverse effect on speech/language development and results in delays in expressive and receptive communication skills.
You cannot communicate with someone if you cannot understand what they are saying - listening is that important to language!
So how can you improve your listening?
Well, first of all, you need to spend more time actively listening to your target language and not just passively listening.
Don’t just play a podcast in the background while you multitask. Listening takes effort and concentration if it is to be done properly. Set aside some time where you can sit still and do nothing but listen to the material.
Take every opportunity to listen to native speakers speaking your target language, whether that be with a movie, podcast or a radio station.
When you watch a movie or a video, don’t get too distracted by the visual stimulation, listen for the intonations and rhythms of speech.
If you are lucky enough to be around native speakers, spend some time just listening to their conversations and how they use the language to interact with each other.
Listen for new words that you can pick out that you do not know the meaning of, and look them up in a dictionary.
Active listening is an excellent way to increase your vocabulary and improve your listening skills at the same time.
Repetition is an important part of learning a language. One reason little children learn languages so fast is that they are always repeating new sounds, words and sentences over and over, so much so that they tend to over-repeat things - and slightly irritate their parents in the process.
Little children constantly repeat things naturally and without inhibitions, whereas adults never have the patience to repeat the same word or sentence without feeling bored and inhibited.
Adults get the impression that repeating something means that they must be stuck and that they are not making any progress, and they often feel as though they are wasting time and that their efforts could be better spent elsewhere - this is a misconception.
Repeating a word three times and expecting it to be ingrained in your memory is quite ridiculous when you think about it.
Repetition is crucial to learning, not just language, but anything. This is why Spaced Repetition apps such as Duolingo and Memrise have proven to be so effective and popular. Repetition works!
However, repetition does not have to be just verbally repeating a word or sentence.
Repetition can also be utilised by re-watching a language-learning video lesson, re-listening to a podcast, or re-doing a language learning activity or exercise.
Repeat something so much that it becomes unforgettable and effortless.
Children are immersed in a language even before they are born. A baby in its mother’s womb can hear sounds from the outside world - and can recognise a voice that they have heard before, especially that of their mothers.
After birth, the immersion experience continues for children. They do not spend hours studying textbooks and finishing homework assignments, and they do not enrol in language schools, they just listen, absorb and speak.
Everything is in context in an immersive language experience; there is nothing fake.
Every sentence, response and tone of voice is an authentic expression of language according to the social context at that present moment in time.
Contrary to what many people believe, you do not need to live in a country where they speak the language you are learning to reap the benefits of immersion. It is possible to create a plan that gives you similar effects without having to travel to a foreign country.
Immersion is simply using the language you are learning, a lot of the time.
One way of achieving immersion is by getting exposed to as much media, in your target language, as possible.
Start off with easier media with simple language and work your way up to more challenging media as your grasp of the language improves.
Listen to podcasts and music, watch movies and TV series, and read text based media such as books and websites.
Children's books and TV programmes are a great way to learn if you are at a beginner to intermediate level, as the language is usually simple and you can try to work out what is being said just by the context of the story being told.
Another option is to actively seek out native speakers who are already living in your area and make friends with them or offer them something in return for speaking to you in your target language.
If there aren’t any native speakers in your local area, find native speakers online who are willing to talk to you in your target language.
Enter language exchange websites where people, who want to learn a new language, go to meet native speakers of their target languages.
Perhaps you will find a native speaker who wishes to learn your mother tongue, whom you can work out a mutual language exchange with.
4: Have Fun
Children do not sit around looking at textbooks, flashcards and dictionaries all day trying to learn a language, they play games, role-play, read fun books and watch fun TV shows.
Children are always looking for ways to have as much fun as possible, and this is another reason why children are often better at learning a language than adults.
Adults get bored and find it hard to stay motivated because they feel that language learning is boring, or they believe that if they are not bored, they are not learning. Neither of these is true.
The best way to stay motivated when learning something new is to make it as fun and entertaining as possible.
So, how do we make language learning more fun?
It is really quite simple. Do things that you enjoy...
Do you like music? Then find a song that you like in English, google the lyrics and study them.
Do you like watching movies? Then find a movie that you like, that you know very well in your own language, and watch it in English.
Do you like to play video games or board games? Then find versions of them in your target language, play them, and try to use your target language as much as possible.
Do you enjoy reading? Then read books in your target language. You can always start with easier books and progress on to harder books as your grasp of the language improves.
Do you enjoy cooking? Then find recipes in your target language and follow the instructions, or watch cooking programmes in your target language.
Do you have a friend who is also learning the same language? Then study together, set each other goals and cheer each other on. Learning with a friend is a great way to stay motivated, and you will also be able to practice speaking with them.
Whatever your hobbies and interests are, if you can find a way to incorporate them into your language studies, you will find it much easier to stay motivated as you will also be enjoying the time you spend studying.
5. Make Mistakes and Stop Caring What Other People Think
Part of the reason children are so good at language learning is that they are not inhibited by the fear of making mistakes. Children are too busy trying out new words and speech patterns to care what other people may think of them.
In comparison, adults are often crippled by the fear of failing, and, of the opinions of others.
Adults tend to inhibit themselves instead of being carefree and adventurous, and in the process, they delay their language learning progress.
In the early stages of learning a language, it is important to make mistakes and fail.
In fact, the more mistakes you make, the better. You can’t expect to be fluent from the beginning, and you won’t make progress without trying (and failing).
It is also important for advanced students to make mistakes, or at least lose the fear of making mistakes.
The difference between a student of a language and someone who is fluent in a language is creativity.
Once you have a good grasp of grammar, sentence structure, speech patterns and so forth, you need to be able to create your own sentences in the spur of the moment that you may have never heard a native speaker use before. You need to get creative!
To be truly fluent in a language, you also need to possess your own style of speaking and writing it, just as every native speaker of a language does - this comes from having a playful mindset and experimenting when using the language.
None of this is possible if you are not prepared to make mistakes or if you are inhibited by your fear of what other people may think.