They say that adults can’t learn languages like children. Can’t soak up languages like a sponge in an immersive environment full of wonder at the meaning of things. Our brains have ossified and certain bones in our ears have ‘set’ at around age 26 (as one speech therapist told me in my early 20s, which got an artificial clock ticking in me – I’m well over that now and still able to acquire completely new sounds, though) so we literally can’t hear certain nuances of sounds in certain languages anymore (famous test on Japanese kids then adults on differences between sounds ‘l’ and ‘r’). It’s basically too late for us.
Unless you’re a parent!
Being a parent is a golden opportunity to learn languages like a child, alongside your baby and child, TOGETHER with the back end support of your analytical brain. It’s actually a privilege we have to get the best of both worlds. We learn how a child learns as we are experiencing their language acquisition in real time. And in our own free, spare time in our dreams, we are studying the target language academically and analytically, which a child cannot yet do.
So during the day we melt ourselves down to the level of children, experiencing everything with wonder and appreciating the connections between things for the first time, absorbing all the immersive massive input like a sponge soaking up not just the words but the whole world, not giving two hoots about grammar and declensions and inflections and case and gender and number and mood and aspect and tense and agreement or even pronunciation…we just speak freely and cheerfully in order to communicate and to get our own meaning across. And it works. And we repeat. For the most part, we are understood and if not we quickly learn how to be understood, as it’s the most important thing in our lives. We don’t care about learning when we’re acquiring.
And during the black and white night we reflect on the brilliant day. Now is the time to worry about grammar and all the rest of it. We look at black and white adult resources, textbooks, grammars, podcasts, dictionaries. We just have to make sure we are one or two (preferably 10 but we do what’s possible) steps ahead of our child and that’s enough, we’re still in the game, constantly encouraging our child’s blossoming language and motivating them to acquire more and go further. At night we ourselves go deeper. This is when we do our own real learning.
And back during the day again, older and wiser and a little bit tireder but equally inspireder – this is for our children, remember – we are back immersed in the technicolour world of childhood. Animal names, animal sounds, toilet humour, seemingly useless, old old nursery rhyme vocabulary and things not normally used in adult conversations (tuffet?!)… all these have a place in the randomiser that is the child’s brain. All are useful (and sometimes quite fun). We don’t know how and why. We don’t care. We just follow the child. And eventually we are able to learn a new word or piece of grammar as a child, and simultaneously and lighting-fast in our adult brains we put the pieces of our analytical puzzle together. “Ah!… that’s because of that… it’s like that!” Lightbulb ding!
And on we go, pinging back and forth between the adult and child worlds (the child’s is definitely more fun; I love the hilarious saying: “Don’t grow up – it’s a trap!”), between learning and acquisition, between academia and realia, between grammar and wonder.
I don’t see why this isn’t possible for non-parents. All you need is a childlike wonder for the world and a half-decent adult brain. The adults I personally know who are ‘good at languages’ as non-bilingual adults are also the ones who have open minds, are curious like children, persistently fun-loving and able to laugh at themselves and don’t worry about making mistakes or always being perfect. In short, they are like children themselves (whether or not they have any).
I’m not a languages expert, just a language lover and now-parent who has loved languages all her life and is seeing them from a new, fresh light for the first time. This is my experience and also what I’ve noticed among my language friends – certain traits they seem to have in common. If you’re not open-minded with a sense of humour, like my friends, then maybe it really is too late, I don’t know. Languages are living, breathing, growing things too – I’ve studied so-called ‘dead’ ones like Avestan and Latin at university level too – and my approach to all is the same. Open-minded, sense of humour, seeing the connections between all things. If you have those, again like the friends of mine I am secretly studying!- you’ll be fine (in life, too, not just languages). They all have those things in abundance. It’s a journey not a destination. Nobody ever finishes learning any language, not even their mother tongue. So might as well enjoy the ride ~
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