In this article, I would like to talk about the theme of learning a language like a child. What it truly means, all its implications, all the lies you can sometimes see behind… We’re going to see what it can really mean to you, and what you can learn from it by yourself.
1) Learning like a child: a marketing catchphrase
Learning a language like a child is something that often comes around as a marketing pitch for language products and services. The idea behind this expression is some kind of idealization of how children learn a language. When you think about children, you immediately think of innocence, games, fun, easy-going activities… Therefore, learning like a child sounds really appealing.
But what they don’t tell you is how to learn differently, meaning how to learn like an adult. Because the first thing you think about is how to learn a language busily studying, with many books, many exercises, hard-working… Obviously, on paper, it doesn’t sound great.
My problem is that we tend to forget how children truly learn languages. In fact, they also learn in a pretty hard way. What you mustn’t forget is that to learn English, a child needs approximately 6 years to master it orally, and so being able to “speak fluently”.
To know how to write in English, he gets there at the age of 11, knowing that there’s still some people who don’t really master English at this age. Of course, it can change depending on the orthography of the language. For French, it might be more around 12 years-old because French writing is more complicate.
Honestly, if you need 6 years to be able to talk like a 6 year-old child, and 12 years to write in French, learning a language like a child makes no sense at all.
Besides, this sort of idealization of children make us believe that the way we learned when we were kids was the best possible. It’s true that children often don’t hesitate to ask questions or make mistakes, much more than adults who are quite terrified by that. But the truth is, children have a really short attention span, and if they are not stimulated in an intelligent way, the majority turns away from any activity.
2) Children often don’t learn in a funnier or simpler way than adults
Unfortunately, this vision of learning like a child as the Holy Grail of language learning was erected. Now, many people think they can learn without any efforts in an intuitive manner. It’s almost like learning without really learning. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like this.
Of course, it’s possible to add a playful side to the learning process. Mobile apps like to use that, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing (to give rewards, reach goals, have competition…). It’s not stupid because it reinjects games in your learning, and it’s not going to harm it.
The problem is that we often focus only on this superficial approach. That’s because it’s much easier to give the learner the impression to progress in a language by giving him the very basics instead of taking him to a higher level. My objective for you is not just to divert you guys just by giving you the basics of French, but I want to help you become really fluent in French.
It’s easy to give you the French basics in vocabulary and grammar. With that, you may think “Oh that’s awesome I learned just like a child!” Ok cool, but how are you going to progress afterwards? That’s why I personally don’t suggest you to learn like a child.
3) Learn like an adult with children’s qualities
What you should do is get out of this idealized vision and advertised catchphrase to learn like a child and ask yourself how do children really learn a language. If you do this, you can start to learn like an adult, but with the good habits that children have without necessarily being aware of it.
So the first thing is immersion. Children are in immersion in their native language. Most of the time, a child learns his language by listening to it, and then by speaking it. You guys are not forced to do it the same way. I’m personally against methods telling you to immerse yourself during 6 months or 1 year and only then start to speak the language (it might work for some people, but that’s not my point of view). I’d rather encourage an active immersion, meaning that you are in immersion, but active at the same time. On the contrary, children are often in immersion for the time their brain develops, and only then they become active and start to speak, corrected by their parents.
You guys can already be in immersion if you want. You can talk as often as possible with French people, you can watch French movies, listen to the radio, music, read books… and in addition, you can already start to make your sentences. Obviously at the beginning you will speak like a child because you will make very simple sentences, without any nuances. Sometimes they might not make so much sense. And in the same way that a child is corrected by his parents, it’s necessary to talk with people who can tell you what your mistakes are so that you can keep on progressing.
It’s like a cyclic learning because you discover things in immersion, you use them, you are corrected and understand your mistakes, and you start again the circle. That’s the right manner to learn like a child: with a lot of efforts.
I’m not saying it must be difficult or annoying, because for me you can solve this problem very quickly: learning a language is not difficult if you decide that it’s not difficult. For example, I learn Chinese characters which might not be the easiest or funniest thing to do, but I decided that it won’t be difficult, I just do it, don’t ask any question and that’s it.
You shouldn’t say to yourself “I’m going to learn a language, oh no I’m gonna have to make efforts…” because actually, children do make efforts, they just don’t realize it. They spend years talking to people around them while being corrected, not being sure about what they say, trying and making mistakes all the time. It’s impossible to learn magically without being aware of anything.
Besides, we often think children are passive in their immersion, and so people think it’s the same thing when they go abroad to learn the language. If you’re in France, you work in France, your whole life turns around the French language, then you will quickly improve it.
But most people don’t go to France for work or to live there. They just stay a few days for tourism and so they just have to buy some groceries once or twice and that’s it. And to think that because you’re in immersion, there will be some kind of magical passive immersion that will make you speak French fluently is stupid. It doesn’t work, because there’s still this whole facet of actions where you have to really face the language in order to learn it. And that’s what children do in the hardest way possible: they try and they make mistakes.
So don’t fall in this trap of these catchphrases telling you to learn automatically like a child because children don’t learn in an automatic way. Since we idealize children and think they live in a wonderful world, we think that everything is super easy for them.
4) Don’t feel restricted because of others’ judgment
However, a good aspect is that children are much less inhibited than their parents because childhood is the moment with the most indulgence regarding mistakes. Nobody corrects you in a mean way or say “Well you should know this at your age…”. It’s only after a certain age that people start to judge each other, and it makes the learning process more difficult because it blocks all this “try and make mistakes” part which is yet essential.
So now that you’re an adult, I recommend you learn like an adult. Don’t try to learn like a 5 year-old kid, because you’re not one anymore. Reuse all this immersion, don’t feel limited and get rid of this fear of making mistakes and being judged.
Try to talk with French native speakers who are learning English in return, because they know your difficulties. You can also learn with a teacher who will correct you sympathetically and methodically. It’s essential to help you progress.
Use all the elements that make children learn languages efficiently, but learn like an adult because you will learn in a much faster way and you will have all the elements that children don’t necessarily have. You will understand grammar quicker and you will have a comprehension which will help you make sentences much faster.
Children don’t necessarily understand what they say because intellectually speaking it’s a bit of a higher level. They need more maturity, which you have. With all the rules and all the logic, you will be able to make your own learning.
So yeah, be careful with this pitch “Learn a language like a child” because there’s a lot of lies inside. It creates a lot of misconceptions about learning languages, and there’s already enough of them. So just learn like an adult, with the good aspects of children learning, and you’ll see that you won’t regret to be an adult when you learn.