How Do Children Learn Languages?

Why are languages so difficult?

Although virtually everyone grows up speaking one language, and up to 60% of the population of the world is estimated to be bilingual, the difficulty of learning languages are well documented.  In the US, less than 1% of people who were taught a second language outside the home actually speak it.  Chances are if you are not immersed in a language, you will not learn it.  So, what is so difficult?

Firstly, there are some hundreds if not thousands of different sounds used across all the world’s languages. Each language typically uses 20-50 of those sounds. So, when you start learning a new language, there’s a good chance you’ll have lots of unfamiliar sounds to contend with. In fact, when you are untrained in a language, your ear barely recognises these ‘new’ sounds.

To make things more difficult, when we speak, we don’t generally say each word separately – they run together in a stream of sounds. With no indications of the beginning and ends of words, it’s no easy task to pick them apart.

Then there is the small matter of the thousands of words you have to learn, and the many rules that dictate how these words need to be put together to produce a meaning that will be understood by someone else than your loving mother.

 

Are languages easier for children? 

It is often said that it is easier for children to learn languages.  Children do have a natural advantage when it comes to accents – they can hear and imitate the tricky sounds of languages in a way that adults mostly cannot.

However, I would argue that they also encounter difficulties.  When you think about it, it takes them until the age of 6 to pronounce certain tricky sounds (think about the Spanish ‘r’ for instance), and until 8-10 to really master their mother tongue.

Compared with teens for instance, younger children do not have the same ability to reason analytically and effectively study grammar.  They still learn implicitly, and not explicitly. I would still advocate learning early for accent and confidence purposes (see here), but it is no breeze for them either.

 

So how do you teach children a language when all they hear is gibberish, and they do not have the attention span for explanations?

Small children first learn to understand their native language by looking and pointing. They will be shown something in their environment they can understand while hearing the word for it, like ‘teddy’ or ‘hungry’.

By doing this they are obviously accumulating vocabulary. But more significantly, they are developing ‘keys’ through which to decipher the stream of sounds they hear. They are able to detect the beginning and end of these words and notice how they sit with other words – for example if ‘eat’ is often followed by ‘tomato’ – and how certain patterns are repeated.

The words that children first use in this way are therefore anchor points from which all other language knowledge is built.  We refer to these words as ‘key’ words.

Once these ‘keys’ have been acquired, the grammar system can be gradually understood through guesswork and repetition.  With a strong foundation of key words, children will begin to pick up on the other words used around them, word patterns and eventually grammar systems – through trial and error – and lots and lots of repetition.