What We Can Learn from Little Kids About Language Learning

It’s no secret that kids are excellent little language learners.  What does seem like a well-kept secret, however, is that ADULTS CAN LEARN LANGUAGES TOO.  From the research I’ve read, the evidence is that older students and adults can learn a language just as well and even faster than little kids, when it comes to words and structures. Where a little kid has the advantage is when it comes to developing native-like pronunciation.  That may get us perfectionists down, but we can be encouraged!  You don’t need to have perfect pronunciation in order to do what I’m sure we all want, to actually communicate in the foreign language. We can do good stuff with our Spanish even if we can’t roll our r’s.  That said, I believe that even pronunciation is something that can be learned well even as an adult!

So kids and adults can both learn a language, and adults have an advantage when it comes to words and structures, while kids have an advantage when it comes to pronunciation.  And yet, many adults studying a foreign language eventually feel stuck, and perhaps give up before they’ve accomplished what they hope to when it comes to learning a foreign language.  It’s to you guys that I am addressing this essay, hoping to help you harness your inner child when it comes to learning a new language (and beyond).

What makes a kid such a good learner of language?  Just watch a little kid for a while and you may learn a lot about learning.  What can WE, older learners, learn from THEM, our little ones?

Here are a few lessons about learning that I believe we adults who love to learn can take to heart.

Lesson #1: A young child’s learning is focused on need

A bilingual child who grows up speaking a minority language learns that language at home because of necessity. Want to communicate with Mom? Speak Spanish. Want to communicate with your Korean grandparents? Speak Korean.  OK, so maybe you want to learn a language that no one else in your family speaks. HOPE IS NOT LOST. The question to ask yourself is, what can you do to create that environment of need?  

Here are some suggestions to create an element of need:

  • Keep a foreign-language only journal.  Begin with words and pictures.  As you learn to put words together, the sentences will come!  Commit to using NO ENGLISH in this special journal; if you want to take notes on English meanings, that’s great, but consider keeping those notes in a separate place.
  • Find a person with whom you will only speak your foreign language.  If not all the time, then at a specific time or a specific place on a regular basis.  It would be ideal if this person speaks Spanish, but perhaps you have a friend who wants to learn Spanish with you, and you can commit to practicing with each other.  Where you lack Spanish, use gestures, or pull out Google Translate if you really need it.
  • Spend some time thinking hard about why it is that you want to learn Spanish.  What do you want to do with your Spanish?  How does it fit into your live goals and philosophy?  Remind yourself often of these reasons so that when you encounter frustration you will find it easier to stick to your study and practice plans.
  • Once you’ve found some ways to get that element of need regularly in your life, Show yourself grace.  Learning a foreign language like many other things in life can be frustrating.  A little bit of frustration in foreign language learning is good, even necessary for learning.  However, excessive frustration can shut you down.  So I encourage you to do your best and try to use your foreign language even if it’s not yet as fluid and natural as you’d like it to be.  With practice you will feel more and more comfortable!

Lesson #2: Little kids have intense interests and learn from these, too.

A little kid who is interested in oceans will learn all sorts of crazy ocean animals that the adults in his or her life don’t even know. A little kid who is interested in the alphabet and word patterns may be an early reader. Some kids like math and it comes easier to them because they like it. Some kids are super creative and are doing role plays and make believe, and they learn through that.

This is super helpful to think about because, if you just honestly don’t like Spanish, you have an extra hurdle to jump through. And if you are truly studying Spanish out of need rather than out of want, there’s a chance (I know, what a crazy idea) that you might not actually WANT to study Spanish.  This is a great learning opportunity because who couldn’t use a little more discipline in the habit of doing stuff we don’t really want to do?!  My exhortation to those of you who want to want to learn Spanish is …HOPE IS NOT LOST! Your enjoyment of Spanish can increase!  My question for you, then, is this: what can you do to enjoy Spanish a little more?   Here are some practical suggestions to think about:

  • Are you a high school Spanish in a class that you don’t really enjoy, but want to enjoy?  Maybe you can talk to your teacher and ask for support.  Aim at building some small successes to take pleasure in.  Ask for help in the points where you struggle, and perhaps the small successes will increase your enjoyment.
  • Do you have some interests you can connect your Spanish learning to?  Do you like to draw?  How about trying to draw out your new phrases?  Do you like to write?  Can you keep a Spanish journal?  What are your favorite movies or TV shows?  Put them on with subtitles.  (Netflix has many shows available for subtitles!)

Lesson #3: Little kids REPEAT EVERYTHING.

I once watched one of my son’s friends push a train around a track about 10 or 15 times. Imagine if you did that and the whole time were practicing your Spanish, repeating words and phrases related to trains. You’d probably learn a lot.  This repetition is especially useful early on in your language learning. At a certain point it might not be so needed because you’ll have other strategies to use with your larger vocabulary, but in the beginning – harness this little kid ability to repeat, repeat, repeat and mush those words around in your mouth awhile. Say them out loud. Are you embarrassed? Look at that little kid rolling around on the floor as he watches his numbers video on youtube and sings along. Uh, yeah, that was my son at two and a half.  He was not the least bit embarrassed.  Do you avoid speaking Spanish out loud with people because of embarrassment?  I get it, I’ve been there!  My biggest practical suggestion is this:

  • Take a breath… then do the thing that scares you!

Lesson #4: Little kids MOVE.

They’re very kinesthetic learners. I’m just gonna say that I think most people are more kinesthetic than they think. I wonder how much more Spanish we’d learn if we made it a habit of doing something while we’re learning. Take a walk and practice your Spanish. Do an activity and use Spanish while you’re doing it. Over mealtime, while you’re eating. While you’re brushing your teeth or putting on your shoes.  The movement is great and so is the connection to real life.

  • Don’t let what you are learning just be head knowledge.  Get it out there in the real world!

Lesson #5:  Less a lesson and more of an observation/personal theory…  

It seems to me that little kids have a harder time differentiating between themselves and others, and themselves and the world.  They perhaps see themselves as more part of the world and community than we do, more connected, less individual.  Have you heard it said that an infant doesn’t see himself as apart from his mother? Having gone through the stage of having a toddler and an infant at the same time, I get it. My children as infants were attached to me. When I leave the room, they cried.  He sees me as a part of him, I knew at the time. And yet as a child ages, they get more independence, and see themselves as less a part of their parents.  That’s a good thing, but sometimes I think that we take independence too far.  We come out of the world too much.  We disconnect, detach, disengage.  We get stuck in our own views, and have a hard time relating to those who are different from us.  Their reality just doesn’t make sense.  And sometimes, we say that their words, their explanations for things, don’t make sense either.

Perhaps it’s easier for a young child who sees himself as part of his parents to learn their words.  Perhaps it’s harder for us as adults to learn another’s words when we are very aware of our differences, our disconnection, our independence.

But here’s the thing about a word – it connections us to a real thing. But do you really know all there is to know about that thing? Different languages sometimes express different things to the same word.  The Icelandic language, for example, has a much richer set of words to describe snow than English does.  Different experiences, different perspective, different language.  If you want to expand your perspective to appreciate those of the foreigners living among you, learning their language is a great place to start.

Another way to harness your inner child is to take a step in to your daily experiences.  There’s lots of talk about mindfulness lately and I love it.  My suggestion to you:

  • Look at the daily patterns in your life as if you are experiencing them for the first time – as if they are new, and you are a part of them. How would a toddler look at it?  Don’t take your experiences for granted. This can be really hard, maybe. But also very fun!

Lesson #6: Little kids are constantly making mistakes.

I watch my little kids and I imagine if I were in their place, it would be so hard for me. They are walking around in an adult’s world, and there are so many things they are just not good at, and can’t do by themselves. Their daily experience is full of failures.  But they don’t see it that way.  They don’t see their frustrations as failures – they try, try, and try again – sometimes to a fault! But we can give them credit where credit is deserved and acknowledge how hard they work. And oh, when they succeed, it feels so good! What if we were to see our mistakes like this, as experiences to even be savored sometimes. Trying to build a block tower to the ceiling? The process is fun even though it will fall down many times before you every make it – and you may not even make it – but oh how fun!  I’ve already given this suggestion but it’s so important that I’ll give it again…

  • Take a breath… then do the thing that scares you!

What makes you excited, like a little child?

How powerful it would be if we could let the excitement of the little children in our lives pour into us!

That said, learning a foreign language will not always feel exciting.  There will be moments of frustration and confusion, which we can also learn from and can help us grow in our character and our levels of discipline.  I believe that a key for adult learners is that since we generally don’t have such levels of excitement and silliness as a child, which are so helpful for foreign language learning, is to create our own element of need.

What will be your element of need in foreign language learning?

My element of need when it came to learning Spanish: When I was in 8th grade, a monolingual speaker of English, I had a Spanish-speaking friend.  We could not speak each other’s language, but we tried our hardest to communicate anyway. We looked at picture books and drew on the chalkboard during recess. I learned a few Spanish words, and she learned a few English words. I needed some Spanish to communicate with my friend, so I learned some, to speak with her.

This is my element of need. There are friends that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t speak Spanish. I will meet people in the future that speak Spanish, and because I also speak Spanish, we can be friends.  And now, I’m using Spanish with my children, so that they also will be able to walk through doors of friendship that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to go through.

Next Steps:

If the bullet points above resonate with you, then great.  Perhaps you could journal about them and share your thoughts with a friend who supports you on your language learning journey.  Put some of your thoughts into action and feel free to stop reading right now!  

If you’d like a few more ideas to help you harness your inner child and improve your learning of a foreign language, here are some concluding thoughts for you to consider. 

Tips to create your element of need, with grace

  • Define your goal. Why are you learning Spanish? What do you want to do with your language, in the long run?
  • Find a time, place, person, or combination of these three where you will only use Spanish and avoid English.
  • Be aware of when you are on the verge of shutting down because of excessive frustration, and give yourself a break.

Tips to enjoy learning a foreign language more

  • Tell your teacher how you feel and give a suggestion to help you enjoy the class.
  • Combine a hobby you enjoy (drawing, writing, movies, etc) with practicing your Spanish.
  • What are you good at? What makes this easier for you? Think about how you can apply that to your learning Spanish.
  • Make sure that your learning goals are realistic so that you don’t feel overwhelmed.
  • Focus on the positive. Ask others what they like about learning foreign languages!

Final questions for reflection, conversation, your journal…

  1. What will you do to create an element of need for what you want to learn?
  2. What will you do to connect Spanish to your interests and personality?
  3. What things that little kids do can you do more, to help you better learn Spanish?

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