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Learn it Like a Child

Updated: Oct 25, 2022

Have you ever wondered why young children can pick up languages and us adults can’t? Why it is that when they arrive in a new country with no previous knowledge of the language at all, typically within a year, they start speaking it, whilst we have to pore over grammar books and typically not get very far? How come that they just know which verb forms to use without knowing any grammar rules, what words to put together without knowing any collocations? And to top it off, they sound perfectly natural without knowing a thing about pronunciation. So what are we doing wrong?




As Dr. J. Marvin Brown pointed out back in the ’80s, to learn a language successfully, we don’t have to learn it as a child. But to learn it as well as them, we need to ‘use the same methods like a child.’




When acquiring a language, what children do first is LISTEN – they just listen to natural talk for anything up to a year, and only start speaking when they are ready. They familiarise themselves with the structure of the language without having to learn its grammar. Now language learning at a later stage is different of course, and the adult brain is more impatient and more analytic. Whilst a child’s brain (under the age of 10) still uses the methods of language acquisition when they go to live in a new country, our adult brain needs ready-made structures in the form of grammar, as it is too late for it to generate its own… Still, not too late for us to train it to utilise some of the language-learning methods of children.




First and foremost, their method of listening. This is why all lessons must be taught solely in the target language, whatever the level. This is why we must surround ourselves with the language, in any way we can. Like using technology. Listening to music. Watching films. Having the radio on when driving. Eavesdropping in the shops. On the train. We won’t understand much to start with, but we will gradually pick out more and more words and learn about word stress/sentence stress/intonation – the music of the language – along the way.




Another thing children do is LEARN PHRASES, which we can easily copy too. We must always learn phrases, never words in isolation. If we learn words together, we get the grammar free! And this is not the only advantage. By learning words together, our brain will automatically start to think in the new language. What’s more, it will process the language and store it in natural units (Noam Chomsky’s ‘chunks’), so we will get better at intonation and sentence stress with no stress at all – if we ‘learn it like a child’. :)




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