You’re already learning languages like a baby (Don’t be fooled)

Babies have a language advantage: Cuteness!
Babies have a language advantage: Cuteness!

No language-learning program knows what it’s talking about when they say they can show you how to learn a language like a baby. There’s no other way.

My kids revealed the secrets of language-learning to me. I was teaching them Russian with they were between 4 and 7 years old. I spoke with them and they went to a Russian class for an hour per week.

I knew the difficulties of learning Russian, but I was fluent by that point, even having worked as an interpreter and translator. I had figured out the tricky parts of the grammar, but my kids’ grammar was hopeless. I didn’t know what to do.

I told their teacher that the kids always messed up verb conjugations and noun declensions, so that all verbs were second person and all feminine nouns were in the accusative. He smiled and said, “Yeah, kids always mess those up.”

I always messed those up, too!

Now I understood! Russian grammar was not just difficult for English speakers. It was objectively difficult if native speaking kids struggled with the same things I did when I was in class.

Once I could put away the idea that the kids could “naturally” figure out the beast of Russian grammar, I saw one main difference remain between me learning Russian and the children of the Russian teacher learning the same language: quantity of input. If I wanted input, I had to gently approach a Russian speaker when I could find one around. If the Russian teacher’s children wanted input, they just yelled; someone would come running to talk to them in Russian to find out what the matter was.

Moreover, if someone doesn’t understand me I have to rephrase sheepishly what I wanted to say, checking and re-checking my grammar in my head. If the kids’ parents don’t understand them, they scream and make it the parents’ problem to figure it out.

Plus kids are just so darn cute. I’m not so bad, but kids are great to spend time with. People delight in inane conversations with babies. “It’s a ball! See the ball? Watch the ball! Now catch the ball! Good job! You caught the ball!” Adults get so excited, you see, and they happily dumb down the conversation to the child’s level. Biologically, our brains are wired so that we get a good feeling taking care of these little adorable bundles of joy.

No one is invested in teaching me languages. It’s all on me.

Are you having trouble with your language? I don’t think you’re the problem. I think that languages can be hard, and you just stumbled into it. French kids mess up noun genders, Spanish kids mess up verb conjugations. I’ve heard kids in multiple languages who can’t roll their “r”. These are all typical mistakes for adult language-learners, as well.

You’re learning like a child, only—I hate to tell you—you’re not as cute. You have to fight embarrassing yourself and interrupting others to get input and to get people to try to listen to your basic language. No one is impressed when you say, “Want milk!” But they love it when babies say it. People “oo” and “ah” when a baby says the simplest thing—and try to get him to say another. They don’t correct grammar; they just smile and keep talking.

Photo credit: Sanctuary photography → back ! maybe :p via / CC BY-NC-SA


6 thoughts on “You’re already learning languages like a baby (Don’t be fooled)

  1. Liriel

    I must ask a clarifying question: by “you’re already learning languages like a baby,” do you mean that adult L2 learners learn languages like child L2 learners do?

    Because that would be true; however, if you mean that adult L2 learners (or even child L2 learners) learn language like child L1 learners, I would have to disagree. There’s a pretty sizable body of research supporting how different L1 language acquisition and L2 language learning are.

    Regardless, you are absolutely correct in that those language-learning programs are being disingenuous (at best).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the question. It’s a good opportunity for me to bring out some of the nuance of my ideas.

      I make the assumption that the nature of input for children and adults is different. Children have caretakers who constantly fill their need for input, while adults have to seek out input, and people are less dedicated to helping them.

      So my first question is how does L2 research control for the quality of input?

      You also raise a point I didn’t consider, which is children’s L2 acquisition. Can you explain more about what the difference is between a child’s L2 and a bilingual child’s second language? How does two L1s differ from L1 + L2?

      I wrote the article because it struck me how adults and children run into many of the same mistakes when learning a language. For example, the American /r/ causes so many problems for adult learners of English, but also for many children. Irregular verbs are regularized by both children and adults. And my experiences in learning several languages were repeated among children learning the same languages.

      I’m sure that interference becomes more of a factor in L2 learning, but the variation in degree interference fascinates me. Why can two people of the same age with the same native language come out with such widely different speech patterns when they learn the same language? That variation indicates to me that something besides simply “the adult brain” is causing them to speak with an accent, but something else in addition. I believe it has to do with the way the learner is organizing and synthesizing his or her input (which, I’m sure, is very complicated).

      Anyway, the quality of any app doesn’t approach the quality of input from a child’s caregivers, so you and I agree that those apps just aren’t going to cut it!


  2. Pingback: Best ways to learn to hang out in Spanish – Loving Language

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