How Children Learn Languages – and What You Can Learn from Them
It’s often said that children learn languages more easily than adults, but is that really the case? Do children have a special advantage, or can adults learn languages just as well as children?
Some academics say that childhood is the critical period for language learning. Is there any truth in this idea, or is it just that children go about language learning in the right way?
I’d like to share the exact techniques that children learn languages — and as you’ll see adults can use these techniques too, though sometimes in a different way to children. After reading this article, I think you’ll be ready to agree that the idea that “children are better language learners” is just an excuse adult learners make to avoid language learning.
So, let’s take a look at how children learn languages, and the five reasons they are so good at language learning.
Reason 1: Children are Handed Learning Opportunities on a Plate
You could say that children have an advantage from the start, because they start learning a language without even deciding to. They’ll most likely be having lessons at school, or their parents will be teaching them. This means that they’ll be having regular contact with the target language. If they’re learning it at home, they may well also be surrounded by family speaking the language, as well as an abundance of reading and listening resources. In this case, the language is around them all the time, free of charge.
This immersion, and the feeling of “not even deciding to learn” is something you can recreate! It is said so often that you don’t need to be abroad to immerse yourself in a language, but that’s because it’s true (more on this later)!
Children learning a language at home do have an advantage, for reasons such as the sheer immersion they’re experiencing. But I would argue that a child learning a language at school isn’t necessarily a great learning opportunity.
Out of all the children that learn, say, French at school, there aren’t many that are going to just ‘absorb’ the language like many adults claim they are magically capable of. I learned French at school, as part of a club that taught me for a couple of years. By the time I reached high school, I hardly remembered a thing! Often adults see children as some kind of magic sponges, but that simply isn’t always the case. It’s important to note that although children get the opportunity to learn languages at school, in most cases this isn’t what makes them fluent.
However, one method that schools do right is teaching through fun. Using songs and rhymes, children discover new vocabulary, and pick it up naturally because they’re enjoying themselves.
This doesn’t mean I’m suggesting you add ‘Frere Jacques’ and the like into your learning routines – but it shows that having fun makes language learning a much more natural process! And you can learn a language with songs) if you want to.
But if you like the structure of learning a language at school, then there are ways you can introduce this on a daily basis. By creating aims every month, and small specific deadlines weekly to meet these aims, you can build on the skills you want to develop, and improve at the pace that suits you, while making sure that you’re practising regularly. If you make manageable little challenges in different areas, you’ll be making progress across the board. This means you won’t be able to build up the huge goal of simply ‘fluency’ and overwhelm yourself!
Small but challenging steps to take could include having an online language lesson on a site like italki, chatting with people on apps such as HelloTalk, or even just asking for stamps in a post office when you visit that country.
Reason 2: Children Don’t Realise They’re Learning
Children embrace the challenge of learning in a different way to adults. In fact, they don’t see it as a challenge at all. They take it in their stride – because they often don’t notice it’s happening!
According to linguistic professor Stephen Krashen, there is a difference between language learning and language acquisition. Language learning, a process I’m sure you're familiar with, is the conscious process of learning about a language. This includes those dreaded grammar rules, and is the process you would have used in classes at school.
Acquisition however, is how you gradually know the language better and better, through processes like speaking.
This is subconscious, and comes as a result of interaction in your target language.
A student at university may go on their third year abroad in Spain, for example, and come back with a high level of fluency in Spanish. This could well be without having any idea what the preterite or imperfect tense is, although they use them with ease.
Acquisition is something that children are good at – they’ve only recently acquired their first language after all (and they did fine with that), so why would they go about learning grammar rules for their second language?
But there’s no reason for adults not to take this approach too. As Benny Lewis advocates, one of the best ways to learn a language is to speak it from day one.
If grammar seems impossible to you, you may well be focusing on it more than you need to. Yes, of course grammar is important, as many of us would love to reach a standard that could mean we’re mistaken for a native. But if it’s demotivating to you then switch up your language learning routine!
My advice is to acquire, and then learn. Speak, make mistakes, then learn the grammar rules that explain those mistakes. The rules will make far more sense, and you’ll spend far less time trying to decipher them.
As an adult, most learning has to be a conscious process. More effort is required, but you’ll get more out of it! You’re in control, and can do what works for you to reach your goal, whether it is near native-level fluency, or just being able to hold a conversation with a native speaker. Therefore, being an adult learner has more perks – you can choose to do things that mean you have fun learning, and this will mean you pick up things ‘naturally’ like a child can!
Reason 3: Children Have an Ear for Phonemes — the Sounds of a Language
There are studies that prove children are especially skilled at learning phonemes, the distinct sounds that form a language, compared to adults. Research by Ann Fathman in 1975 found that six to ten year olds had the most advantage in this respect (read more here). Learning a foreign language from a young age can mean that it takes less effort to end up sounding like a native. But this doesn’t mean you can’t.
Adults can be at least as good – it just might take a little longer. There are people like Benny that have learned their first foreign language fluently as an adult, and speak it to an incredible standard (along with lots of other languages!). These people aren’t superhuman, but through speaking as much as possible (along with other methods), they are as great as phonemes as any child could be, or better.
Sometimes it seems impossible to understand what someone is saying, even if you know most of the words you’re hearing when they’re written on a page. A lot of the time the language is faster than you’re used to, and all the words seem to come out as one – how can we possibly work out the words we’ve just heard, let alone understand them?
The way to be great at differentiating and imitating the sounds in a language is to expose yourself to the target language as much as possible.
Don’t mistake this for me telling you to travel overseas – you don’t have to be in a different country to immerse yourself in the target language. Of course it’s great to be surrounded by the language all the time, and realise the cultural context of the language you’re learning (as well as have a great holiday!). But immersing yourself is easy to do at home. You can constantly be exposed to foreign sounds through lots of listening material, such as YouTube videos, podcasts, radio, and music.
Even if children do have a headstart in picking up phonemes, as an adult you can reach a standard of speaking at least as good as theirs through as much language exposure as possible, in whatever fun way you decide to do.
What’s more, it’s not just children that have strengths in language learning. Research in the 1980’s by Catherine Snow and Marian Hoefnagel-Hӧhle showed that due to developed cognitive ability, adults can have the upperhand in different aspects of language learning; this study in particular showing that the older learners outperformed children on pronunciation, including spontaneous tasks and imitation.
Adults are also more likely to be able to learn particular structures in a language quickly, which is shown by Fathman’s research, which I mentioned above. We’re great at establishing patterns in a language, enabling us to learn much more effectively – which provides yet another advantage! Adults also know more of the English language, making it easier to recognise cognates (foreign words that look like and mean the same thing in your language, for example, ‘education’ is ‘educación’ in Spanish) meaning we are further along than children vocab-wise before we even begin.
Reason 4: Children Aren’t Afraid to Make Mistakes (They Just Learn from Them)
Professor Stephen Krashen has developed the ‘monitor’ hypothesis, which hugely resonates with me. This is the idea that when adults learn (rather than acquire) a language, any information learnt acts as a ‘monitor’, which means that after you have thought about what you are going to say in your target language, you use pre-existing knowledge to check that there are no errors in your planned speech. Then, after speaking you may correct yourself further.
A successful user of the monitor doesn’t overuse it. They will only make minor corrections when speaking, in order to interrupt the flow of a conversation as little as possible.
Of course, conveniently, adults tend to be over-users of their inner monitor!
We worry about sounding stupid, and this can stop us from getting ourselves out there and practising. Children, however, don’t seem fazed at all. How is this fair?!
Language learning is different to learning other skills – it requires a lot of confidence in order to develop. For example, if you start learning to play the guitar, you aren’t expected to be performing to crowds straight away. But with a language, you need to be ‘performing’ all the time if you want to improve. This can be incredibly difficult, especially if you are shy, but pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, (even just a little bit at a time) will leave you with an enormous sense of achievement.
When I went to France last summer, I kept chickening out when I had an opportunity to practise speaking. My family knew I had been learning French for a while, so I was scared to say anything that was less than perfect.
Then, in a post office I gathered the courage to just ask for some stamps, to send some postcards to England. I only said a sentence or two to the man behind the counter – but realising that we understood each other felt great!
It’s small interactions like this that drive me to carry on learning. The thrill of being understood in another language is second to none.
I’ve found that the longer you leave it to start talking, the more pressure there is to get it right. This is especially if people know you’ve been learning for a while. Don’t be disheartened if you feel that your accent isn’t good enough, or worry that you won’t sound as good as you’re expected to – especially if it prevents you from speaking. The priority is to speak lots, however good or bad you think you sound. Furthermore, if you start talking as soon as you’re learning, and you eliminate this problem; people will be impressed however good or bad you sound at first! There’s no expectation if you speak from day one, so you can make as many mistakes as you like. The pressure is off, and you’ll make lots of progress which will grow your confidence.
Reason 5: Children Ignore the Idea of Becoming Fluent
As a child, often your parents or your school are in control of your learning. This means that children don’t have a chance to opt out like adults might do.
Some children may even have to be bilingual to even understand both their parents, if they are living in a multilingual home. This creates the drive needed to become fluent in that language.
Thus you need to create that drive.
A child doesn’t see fluency as a far-away goal – they don’t even see it as a goal. Focusing too much on the end result can be discouraging; and as adults who learn more consciously, we are more aware of the prospect of fluency, and often as a result find the idea of reaching that goal rather intimidating.
Learning exactly like a child will never be the answer. But we can take lessons from them in order to be better learners ourselves. If we can’t help finding language learning daunting, then we need to find ways to be motivated and continue to work to reach our goal.
If you’re struggling with motivation, do what scares you. Like I said before, the thrill of speaking another language is everything, and if this is something you find daunting, challenge yourself! Doing something that scares you creates drive, as you realise what you’re capable of.
The more you do something that scares you, the easier it becomes. For example, If you speak as much as you can, before you know it you won’t be scared – and you will have made so much progress! This is why Benny’s speak-from-day-one approach works so well. Having a go speaking early on will set you up for great achievement in language learning. Challenging yourself often, even in small ways, will make you a far more confident and motivated language learner. You’ll progress faster, and that will lead to even more motivation!
Reaching fluency will be up there with your biggest achievements – however old you are.