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Can we learn like children?

A common idea in the language community is that because children learn their first language to a high level, the adult learner can succeed by aiming to emulate the way children learn as much as possible. 

This advice comes in two forms: 1, that you don’t need to formally study a language to learn it and 2, that you should immerse yourself as much as possible. Both are correct in their own way, but we’re going to refine this advice a bit.

While children do learn their native languages very well, it takes around ten years of complete immersion to get there and another ten to become a fully functional adult.

To fully acquire languages, enormous amounts of input are necessary. Children are given far more comprehensible input than adults and, without the grammar book or dictionary, are generally much slower at acquiring basic forms and wait a lot longer than adults before they try speaking.

Once they do acquire these forms and start speaking, however, there is no example for them to follow except that of perfect native speech. 

Also keep in mind that by the time they are an adult, the child will have spent an enormous amount of time in school practising their language skills and having their output critiqued.

Adult speakers frequently learn rules and then quickly move to applying them by speaking. The result is that most of the adult’s first attempts at communication will not resemble native speech.

For those adult learners who want to speak like a native, the answer is not to attempt to learn like a child, but to surround themselves with as much comprehensible input as possible. 

Adult language learners can also spend time in focused study to find and improve weaknesses and learn words and complex forms faster.

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So what should the adult learner do?

Adults differ from children in several key ways. They have a well-made path already in regular use, far more distractions and responsibilities, and an inherently different learning environment. 

On the other hand, adults have greater cognitive ability they can leverage in their learning. Your language learning should reflect this.

The key insight of the garden path analogy is that if you want to learn to speak accurately, you need to see natives walk the path themselves. Languages, as with almost all knowledge, are built on a foundation of memory. 

To build your language knowledge you need repetition and an environment that consistently challenges your memory without being overly difficult. This describes a child’s learning environment almost perfectly. For an adult, it is impossible to completely replicate this environment, but you can build something like it.

What you should do depends on your goals

Are you unconcerned about speaking perfectly and only interested in getting from A to B? Quickly building your own imperfect paths is the best way to go. 

Actively study as much as you need then quickly move to using your language for whatever you like. Practise until you feel comfortable.

If you want to master your language, the story is different.

Learning a language to a high level means building your garden to resemble a native speaker’s as much as possible. 

Children eventually become native speakers for a good reason, and you should aim to replicate some parts of their process.

Don’t feel pressured to begin speaking or writing early. Instead, focus on listening and reading. 

Any early attempt at speech will likely result in you following a path comprising a combination of the artificial structures of language instruction and the well-trodden default paths of your native language. 

This happens as you hunt for words and constructions you know in your native language, then search for the target-language equivalent.

Focus on learning the language in context. Active study should consist of learning thousands of natural, common phrases rather than drilling single words or isolated grammatical forms. 

Passive study should involve huge amounts of enjoyable, level-appropriate content. Ideally, you will repeat this content multiple times. 

Learn the most common constructions and forms. Learn them well. 

When you practise speaking, you should generally stick to them. You can start to form more complex sentences later on, once those forms are familiar to you from your input.

You can solidify your paths by speaking and writing. 

This is a powerful tool — you quickly build the quality of your garden path by navigating it yourself. However, without correction, your errors can fossilise through repeated use. 

The more you use unfamiliar forms and words when you speak, the more you risk building and strengthening an unnatural path. While you can fix these paths later, it will take time and effort. Most early errors will not fossilise. 

Young children first attempting to speak make errors all the time. As they get older, they rapidly progress to using simple constructions, making errors only occasionally. From there, their speech becomes more complex only gradually.

Adult learners generally challenge themselves with more complex sentences far quicker. This is where the possibility of fossilised errors increases.

While children don’t often study grammar, language lessons can benefit adult learners. Rather than enabling you to use the language, their true function should be to introduce you to the paths that natives are treading. 

This is a useful jump-start that can also help you avoid unconsciously following your native language’s paths.

Finally, be patient. It will take huge amounts of exposure to the language until the path is clear enough that you can tread it yourself comfortably. 

Children benefit from a lot more input and repetition than adult learners, and that is the true path to fluency.

This does not mean that you have to suffice with only listening and reading for your first two years of language learning. You can start by walking the artificially built paths to communicate, using the language as you were taught. 

There is a trade-off. 

Eventually, you will have to go back to the spot where you went wrong. 

However, it might be that you find this middle ground a lot more satisfying, letting you build friendships and have interesting conversations far quicker than a child could.

Try a free lesson with Lingualift today!

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