Can I learn a language like a child?

When working in education you will frequently encounter theories about learning and teaching. Most are based on paradigms like constructivism, cognitivism or behaviorism and from there they go into all kinds of detail about how we learn or how we learn best. This is all very useful, because teachers and learners are often eager to develop a deeper understanding of what is happening during the learning process and are able to use such knowledge to improve said process.

One example from language learning is how to remember vocabulary. It makes a big difference if students study vocabulary by simply repeating a list of words over and over or if they imagine a situation, in which they would use a new word as part of a sentence. Though for some students the first option may sound more attractive, the second one will produce better results for most learners.

This is not a finding that one day just popped up in the midst of some German class, in which the schoolteacher suddenly intuitively knew that children shouldn’t undergo the same training practices as German shepherds. No, there is actually a proper scientific basis to it.

Interestingly, when it comes to conclusions about methods based on processes based on paradigms, some people like it short and simple, and on top of that some people also like it rather dogmatic. Not any people but people who are supposed to know about the complex foundation from which the chosen dogma derives because they spent years studying that field.

I am sure you have heard of this one: ‘Learn a language like a child!’

Of course. Who wouldn’t want to gain fluidity in any language within three or four years by simply hearing it. (If you have anything to do with children, you will understand why I don’t use the term ‘listening’ here.)

A while ago I watched a Korean series called Stranger (also: Secret Forest), which is only available in the original language with English subtitles. I watched with great interest and concentration and after sixteen episodes I still wasn’t able to say a single word in Korean. What I did learn, thanks to the English subtitles, is that in Korea the last name is stated before the first.

So, how is it that children can learn a language by mainly hearing and repeating? For one, children can differentiate sounds, so-called phonemes, significantly better than adults. This makes it possible for them to learn any language, and this is why they are so fantastic at imitating spoken language even if they have no idea what the word or expression even means. Once they have learned their own language(s) and are used to it, this ability decreases. Secondly, children’s brains are at a certain stage of development when learning a language. The time that is considered the sensitive period for language acquisition is when the neuronal plasticity is highest. Thirdly, children don’t categorize like adults. Adults assimilate a lot more, which means whatever new they encounter, they will try to place within existing schemata, while children primarily use accumulation. They are using new information to build schemata.

The difference in assimilation and accumulation between children and adults is not a matter of attitude but a matter of natural human development. Children build schemata because they start off having so few, and adults use their schemata because they have so many of them to use. Simply put, if you don’t build up a gigantic collection of schemata throughout your life, it does not make you especially open-minded or innocent, it rather points at a developmental error. You can still be open-minded by choice and for example ignore experience.

In the area of language we are not looking at human prejudice though, not in the sense in which somebody would use the term when referring to a desired state of open-mindedness. The schemata we are looking at are way more basic. Say, an adult English speaker is learning German and wants to buy an apple on the farmer’s market in some German town. He (or she) knows what an apple is, what it looks like, what it tastes like. The dictionary says that an apple is called ‘Apfel’ in German. Thanks to his knowledge of German pronunciation rules he can now formulate an expression that he can use at the market: ‘Ein Apfel, bitte!’

The child’s learning process, on the other hand, goes like this: He (or she) might have heard the word apple and is able to repeat it but to him it has no meaning. He developed a schema that can be described as ‘if a thing is round, it’s a ball’ and another one called ‘balls can be rolled around’. He sees an apple and calls it ‘ball’. He tries to roll it around but the apple doesn’t roll like a ball. The child will register this and question the schema about balls rolling around. Apparently not all ‘balls’ can be rolled around. Luckily some adult is at hand to tell the child that this is an apple. The child will create a new scheme called ‘some round things are not balls’ and the existing schemata about balls will eventually be changed to ‘If a thing is round and can be rolled around, it’s a ball’.

The assumption that an adult could successfully learn a language like a child ignores the fact that children and adults are at completely different stages in their physical development, which naturally includes cognition. In order to be able to learn like a child, you have to be a child. Literally, not in attitude.

We as adults will have to keep learning languages like an adult. But let’s not forget, though we can’t go back and be children again, once we all went through this amazing phase of learning our own language by trial and error, constructing and reconstructing cognitive schemata. We tend to believe that it is so much easier for children to learn. Let us at least consider that it is not at all easy but rather different. I think it is safe to say that mastering your own language is a gigantic achievement when you look at the cognitive effort behind it.

Children have to learn the language of their environment, otherwise they will encounter severe difficulties getting by. From that perspective it makes sense that they should learn a language so ‘naturally’. As adults, we choose to learn a language, and the closest we can get to learning like a child is to not overthink it and just do it.