For many parents an advantage of the globe-trotting lifestyle is the opportunity for the whole family to learn foreign languages. We hope that exposing our children to languages from an early age will help them grow up multi-lingual.
While we shouldn’t expect too much from our kids, especially if we’re only spending a few months at a time in a foreign country, it’s certainly possible they’ll pick up the local language more easily than their monolingual parents.
Kids who hear two languages from birth usually become bilingual effortlessly, but older children who spend time in a foreign country also often acquire a new language more quickly than adults do. Unsurprisingly, recent research from UCLA indicates that the language areas of the brain seem to go through the most dynamic period of growth between the ages of six and thirteen.
A language teacher I worked with insisted that not only is it easier for children’s brains to process language, it’s also easier for their vocal cords to make a wider range of sounds. She considered that after puberty you can still become fluent in terms of vocabulary and grammar, but your accent will forever give you away as a non-native speaker.
So, is it possible for us adults to learn languages as effectively as our children? Or will our poor old fully-developed brains and vocal cords always trip us up? I have a theory that while kids may be inherently better equipped for language acquisition, there’s also a lot we can observe from the way they learn language that we can apply to our own experiences.
What Adult Language Learners Can Learn From Children
We all have different ways of learning languages. Here are some of the techniques I learned as a native English speaker living in Spain and watching my own children and others become bilingual or even multilingual.
Just jump in.
Daily practice in everyday situations is the key to improving. Making mistakes is part of the learning process, yet as adults we like to learn the language first, then start practicing.
Using a formal program or class to get started is fine. We do need some kind of foundation to build on, but once we’ve got a basic grasp of the language, it’s time to start using it. I was always scared of making mistakes, but guess what? Kids make mistakes in their new language all the time, and other kids correct them, within the context of the conversation, and they rarely make the same mistake again.
Very young children don’t ‘translate’ from one language to another. They learn visually. They hear someone calling a horse a ‘caballo’ and associate the word ‘caballo’ with an image of a horse.
This is a more efficient way of learning vocabulary than looking at long lists of written words and trying to memorize the translation for each one. Hearing the word also means you focus on the way it actually sounds. You don’t try to picture the word written down, which often results in mispronunciation anyway.
Use a language exchange partner – like a child does.
Find a native speaker who wants to learn your language and is willing to meet for a regular chat. Then – and this is important – consider starting your sessions together with each of you speaking your own language. I first heard children in a playground using this method in a surprisingly natural way. Each child understood their second language more than they spoke it, so one was speaking Spanish and the other was replying in English, without it occurring to either of them that this was an odd way to converse.
We all tend to understand more foreign words than we can readily bring to mind, so this method can help to cement your understanding, without you both constantly struggling to express yourself in your second language. It does feel strange at first, but you’ll end up having long conversations like this and it will feel quite natural (though it will definitely sound odd to eavesdroppers!).
Watch children’s TV and movies.
TV aimed at very young children is often all about developing language skills. I remember being bored stiff, but too tired to move, listening to a Spanish program my kids were watching where the characters were repeatedly singing the children’s song “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” in Spanish. Not long after that I had to explain to a doctor that I’d twisted my knee. I had no problem recalling the word for knee, based on that one boring afternoon.
We all have DVDs our kids watch over and over again. If you can, switch them to a different language when you’re bored of watching them in English, and let them watch them over and over again in the new language. You’ll both know whole sections by heart in both languages eventually.
Take a class in a foreign language.
Take a class, any class, but not a language class. I noticed that when my children went to day care they were learning all the time, in a foreign language, but they never once had a formal lesson in how to speak that language. They still picked it up.
I applied that to my life by taking a couple of classes in Spanish. I started with yoga and horseback riding. The results were impressive. Words used in the context of a physical activity sank in much faster than if I’d been learning them as part of a language class, or trying to memorize vocabulary from a book.
My kids never checked the language of a book or magazine before they picked it up. They just started working out the words from the pictures. I found I could do the same with adult magazines, and sometimes with non-fiction books too. This works especially well with highly illustrated articles, or things that follow a logical sequence, such as recipes.
Get some dual language books.
Dual language books with ‘parallel text’ in two different languages can be bought at Bilingualbooks.com. I got some for my kids but they worked equally well for me, so I ordered some adult books as well. Reading a text in your own language and then following it in your second language really helps you to see how a particular phrase or proverb translates, or how a word can have different meanings depending on context.
Keep a diary.
An older child I knew who moved to a new country started keeping a diary in her new language. I tried it out for myself, and was amazed by the results. Writing about what I’d done each day made me work out tricky grammar issues (especially past tenses) and think about ways to express myself without the pressure of being in the middle of a conversation. It really helped.
Many of us find learning a foreign language as an adult is a challenge, and I accept there are probably at least some developmental or even physical reasons for this. But with foreign language learning, as with so many other things, we can learn an awful lot by simply watching our children.