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Learn Language Like a Child? August 10, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Learning Tips.

My daughter has turned 2-years old last month. This is the period when suddenly you hear streams of words coming out from her month rather unexpectedly.

A lot have been said about learning language like a child, especially from the natural language learning advocates. After all, who is a better learner than a child, who would eventually become a native speaker. I am not against the natural language learning approach, but I would not go so far and adopt the entire children approach and “learn language like a child”. I can think of at least 3 areas that are very different:

1) Pace
Children take many years to become fluent native speakers. We as adult probably won’t want to spend as much time. Adults learn things very differently than children. We relate what we know with what is new to us. Children usually learn the concepts and the language at the same time. So there is no reason why we cannot learn faster than them.

We as adult tend to work much harder and stay more focus to acquire a language. We perform drills and memorize vocabulary. Children usually take the ‘natural’ pace to absorb the new materials, which of course is expected to take a longer time.

2) Vocabulary
I have heard people recommending learners to read children’s books. While I believe this is good to get used to the sentence structure, but at the same time you would pick up a lot of vocabulary that are not very useful in your daily-life. You would learn all the names of the animals and insects, from a bee to a donkey, as well as items such as a balloon, kite, and teddy bear.

I recall some years ago, my wife and a few friends hired a Mandarin teacher to teach them Mandarin. This was way before I started. She found a teacher from Beijing working in a kindergarten. One day, I took a look at her materials, only to find out that the teacher was reusing the same materials from her work. My wife was learning sentences like “Papa goes to work, Mama goes to cook” (爸爸工作,妈妈煮饭)!

3) Methodology
We are much smarter than children, and we should leverage this advantage and take shortcuts. This is where linguistic tools such as grammar come into place. I am not against extensive grammatical explanations, only that we should not spend too much time of explaining ‘why’ things are. Grammar should help us to identify patterns and nothing more.

Other useful tools include phonetics and memorizing techniques such as mnemonics.

I believe we still have a lot to learn from children as far as language learning is concerned. In particular, children are usually better listeners, they are eager to imitate, and they have the correct attitude of being fearless and humble.



1. Harvey - August 15, 2007

Fearlessness is a great advantage kids have… when learning their first language! I have seen many extremely shy children in Japan who have been thrown into “English lessons”, only to be so shy as to never make a peep. Poor things!

Of course, I’m sure it would be different if they were in a school abroad totally surrounded by foreigners though.

2. chris(mandarin_student) - September 10, 2007

I agree, and as you point out adults can learn languages much faster than Children (despite it being so often presented the other way around).

As you say part of the reason we can learn faster is that we have already done a lot of work by learning a language (any language). I think the ability to concentrate for longer helps too, and adult can be attentive to new language for long periods of time.

Ultimately the child may go further in his/her mother tongue but that is after 20 years or so. Maybe the reason that many second language learners don’t get perfect is simply because the payoff isn’t worth it (if you can get pretty damn good in half the time why bother).

3. Guessing Game « Tower of Confusion - December 22, 2007

[…] Secondly, what is wrong with thinking in my native language? I have a knowledge of an adult. I learn faster than a child because I don’t need to learn the words and the concepts at the same time. I don’t want […]

4. Tin - December 25, 2008

I believe the natural language learning approach is the only way to going native. Most of the linguistic language learning approach advocates and followers cannot speak the foreign language as a native speaker as they see there is no need for going native. They use the language to work, learn and communicate (in the business field). After work, they tune to their home language (mother tongue). Actually, they never love the language and the culture.

We should first define well what native is actually to us before looking into what you share. NATIVE only means when you feel close to the language you are speaking, you are externalising yourself. You use the language relaxingly, subconsciously and deeply to describe the inner self. Ask yourself and other traditional approaches (grammar approach, memorisation approach…) advocates: what language you use when you are alone to self talk to yourself, such as bathing, before sleeping, and thinking about your life? The language you use is your native language. When you are using your foreign language to dream, daydream or self-talk, you are treating the language as your mother tongue in which you relate it to your life. That’s NATIVE, nothing else about proficiency, whether you first learnt the language or whether you learn it from your mother.

But of course, even natural approach advocates seem to fail in being native. The reasons are complicated. Mainly, it is because they don’t have the speaking community, supposing those cannot immerse themselves in the foreign countries. And they are not child-like. This is the part I want to reply to you seriously. I am not going against your ideas or am trying to attack you, but ponder over your ideas when reading the following:

First, what is the advantage a child has but adults don’t? Simple. A child never challenges others and other ideas. They totally immerse in the community. They imitate, enjoy (it) and rejoice. One thing natural approach advocates work hard to do is imitating. They fail, unfortunately and worse still, linguists and their advocates use their failing experiences to indicate that imitation, audiolinguistic approach don’t work. We need grammar, vocab building and phonetics diagnosis. The conclusion is very sad and bad. It makes no sense at all. Why adults fail to copy, reproduce the so-called model speech they are using? Simple. Adults filter input. Adults subconsciously, uncontrollably, they cannot stop analysing the language. Children, who do not have the ability of breaking up input and encoding (they are still developing), naturally copy the input and reproduce it so as to externalise themselves. Adults have already built up their internal framework of everything. They have their views towards the world, gender, life… they have the set of the language(s) to describe things. They find no need to relearn a new set of language to re-describe the things they know. That is why the only meaningful way to learn a language is to go into a new culture. Suppose I want to learn English, it is nonsense to use EN to describe the Cantonese culture and the community (I am Cantonese). Of course there are something universal among different cultures, like love, romance, freedom, values… but different people from different cultures will have a slightly different description of them. It may help some learners who cannot go to foreign countries when they try to first listen to/watch podcasts on the topics, relax and accept the ideas and later on evaluate the views. To live a second life is the only effective way to learn a new language. It is still possible if adults are willing to live like a foreigner in their mother community. I am doing it now when I enjoy copying some filmstars. It works very well.

To conclude, the secret is when you speak English, you are English while you speak Russian, you should live like a Russian. A multilingual person should have different sets of cultural beliefs in one self. That is why he/she is more attractive to others. What you were saying in the post is right, but I wonder if you could find anyone who learns the language traditionaly (using grammar approach) will enjoy doing so and will speak like a native speaker. In Hong Kong, I never see one, even a language professor.

5. AHMAD - November 17, 2009


6. Nancy - September 14, 2010

Hi Tin,
How did you manage to learn English so well? do you have more tips to share?

7. aprender online - December 30, 2013

This will create better understanding of the material.
Furthermore degree holders bring in more cash,
they also are less likely to be unemployed. Another important aspect of studying this
field is that students choose this course to help disadvantaged individuals, groups,
and families through practical assistance, but after completing their
study from an online institute, most of the students
fail to interact with disadvantaged people in real life.

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