It’s widely known that childhood is the best time to start learning a language. In fact, studies have shown that the language-learning process begins even before birth, and that babies hear language sounds, particularly those made by the mother, while they are still in the womb.

What a great start to language learning! If you have ever taken up a language as an older child, teenager or adult, you will know how frustrating it can be to see a multilingual child effortlessly switching between languages.

Of course, there are some very logical explanations for why children have a greater capacity for learning and speaking multiple languages. Their brains are more flexible, their ear is more ready to listen, and they are still actively developing speech.

(If you would like to find out more about how multilingualism changes according to your age, this is a fascinating TED talk on the subject.)

But it’s not the end of the world if you started learning a language later, or you are taking up a new language as an adult. Sure, it will be more challenging, but there are ways for us to make it easier.

I’m mum to two bilingual children, and I’ve observed how they manipulate two different languages, and how they approach language learning in general. I believe that there are elements of this that we, as adults, can take inspiration from in order to make our own language-learning journey more productive and, especially, more fun!

So, are you ready to embrace your inner child?

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Children aren’t afraid of making mistakes

If you have children, or you’ve worked or spent time with them, you will know how many mistakes they make when they speak! It can be funny and charming (for example, my four-year-old daughter says “Cheeky Con Carne”, and my son used to call trampolines “jumpolines”!).

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As caregivers or educators, our job is to correct them gently and with kindness. We know they are still learning, and mistakes are part of this.

However, when it comes to adults learning new things, we are terribly harsh on ourselves, and mistakes are no longer seen as an opportunity to progress, but something to be ashamed of.

When kids are presented with a new word or concept, they see it as an exciting new discovery, rather than a gap in their knowledge.

How about we try to harness the insouciance of children and use it in our own language learning? To embrace the mistakes, and recognise that they are all part of the learning process? (I wrote about humility in last week’s article.)

They know that repetition is essential

I have two children, aged four and almost seven. The eldest is a big fan of a comic book and Netflix series in which the main character is named Hilda. His little sister, for whatever reason, has trouble remembering the name of this particular character, and has to ask her brother every time, “What’s the name of the girl with blue hair?”. Incidentally, her older brother finds this very annoying!

But the thing is, children have an innate acceptance that they need to hear, or see, words several times before they definitively learn them. They read the same books over and over, listen to the same music, and watch the same TV programmes. If you’ve ever watched a kids’ TV programme, you’ll know that repetition plays a huge part, and the same elements make up each episode. It’s both reassuring and vital for learning.

However, as a teacher, I often find students stop using applications or learning programmes because “it’s always the same thing”. What’s more, students tend to feel embarrassed when they can’t find a word they know they’ve already learnt.

Here’s an idea: let’s stop apologising for forgetting words and accept that repetition is key to learning!

They do what they love

Whether it’s books, TV, films, music, sports, games or crafts, kids know what they love, and when they have free time, they dedicate themselves to this particular activity.

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They don’t know however that they are also developing their language during all of these activities – but it’s true! They don’t realise because it’s an enjoyable activity for them, and not a structured language exercise. The fact that they are acquiring new words and practising what they already know is just a cool bonus.

As adults, there will come a point during your language-learning journey when you will have to analyse the structure (grammar) of the language, and perhaps do a focussed grammar exercise or two. However, it’s important not to limit your learning to language exercises, but to supplement these by tapping into your hobbies and passions in order to boost your vocabulary and comprehension skills in an enjoyable and valuable way.

If you like yoga, why not follow an online lesson in English (like Boho Beautiful or Yoga With Adriene)? If you are an avid reader, perhaps it’s time to pick up a book in English. If you enjoy cooking, try following a written or video recipe in English. Whatever your passion, there are always ways to discover and develop it while improving your English at the same time.

And it will be more fun than those exercises!

They know how to listen

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This may sound obvious, but listening is crucial when you are learning a language, and it’s a big part of effective communication.

I’ve already mentioned that babies start listening to language sounds while in their mothers’ wombs. When they are born, they spend a large proportion of their first months listening to the sounds of the world around them.

As children grow up, they use their listening skills to help them develop faster. It’s tempting as a parent to think that they NEVER listen, but really, they listen a lot better than us, the adults. Children ask a lot of questions, right? Well, they also listen attentively to the answer.

When we become adults, these listening skills decline, or we lose the habit, or perhaps we stop asking so many questions. Of course, listening skills vary from person to person, but I think everyone could benefit from making a conscious effort to listen more.

For kids, anything is possible

I’m a descriptivist, and this means that I am a linguist who accepts that language evolves. Language is a living thing; it changes with time, and adapts to the world in which we are living. Take the words COVID and BREXIT, for example…

Kids don’t know it, but they, too, are descriptivists. They don’t worry about whether a word is in the dictionary; if it describes what they are seeing or feeling, it’s the right word. You remember my son used to say “jumpoline”?

Of course, there are rules and dictionaries, but what if we started getting creative and having fun with the language? What if we started combining words and guessing more to express what we are thinking and feeling?

Not only is this a fun and entertaining approach to language learning, but it’s also an excellent habit to get into. Instead of feeling stuck when you don’t have the exact word you need, you can navigate around it and still express (approximately) what you want or need to. Isn’t this the basis of effective communication?

They feel the language

This leads me nicely to my last point. As I watch my children growing and learning, I realise that intuition plays a huge part in their acquisition of their languages. I’ve never sat down and explained how to use the present perfect as I would with an adult learner, and yet they use it correctly and effortlessly.

Yes, you can learn grammar rules and vocabulary. But at the end of the day, there are some concepts of the language – in English, I’m thinking particularly of the present perfect and phrasal verbs – that are way too complex to learn straight off a verb table or cheat sheet. You need to feel the language as if it were a piece of music, and to do this, you need to develop your intuition.

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

Now, I agree that it’s challenging to develop your intuition when you are learning a language as an adult, especially if you don’t have the possibility of using it in an immersive experience. However, as a language teacher, I have identified a few tricks and techniques to develop this intuition throughout your language-learning journey, even if you live in a country where your target language isn’t widely used. I will tell you more about these tips and techniques in another article!

Are YOU ready to embrace your inner child and boost your language learning? Let me know in the comments!

P.S. Have you got my free guide on how to build vocabulary yet? Download it here.

About the author

Hi, welcome to my blog! I’m Sarah, and I’m a British expat in France. I’ve been teaching English for over a decade; in primary schools, high schools, language clubs and training centres, as well as with individual children and adults.

Copyright 2020 Sarah Speaks English

I have two children of my own, aged four and almost seven. I am fascinated by child development and language acquisition, and I take my observations and adapt them for teaching adults who are learning English as a foreign language. My aim is to remove as much frustration as possible from your language-learning journey, and instead make it a fun and exciting experience!