Tactics

Should You Learn a Language Like a Child? Yes and No!

It’s old news that children are able to learn lots of different languages all at once. Just the other day I watched a video on YouTube about a five-year-old girl who was speaking five languages! Does that mean kids are the best at learning languages? Should you learn a language like a child does too?

The answer is that “yes” you should learn like a kid. But also “no” you should actually learn like an adult.

What I’ll go over today are some different ways that kids and adults learn new things (languages in particular) and why kids are sometimes better, and other times it’s adults who reign supreme.

Afterwords, you should be able to use the best of both worlds for yourself!

When is the Optimal Time to Learn? Kid Brains vs. Adult Brains

Kids are pretty amazing when you think about their circumstances. They come into this world and literally understand nothing.

From that void they start paying attention and, like a sponge, absorb all the sounds that they hear, the sights that they see, and so on.

At some point, they are fluent in a language. They (you too at one point) learned a language to complete mastery from nothing – zero previous knowledge!

Here’s the point: a child’s brain is constantly devouring information in an effort to learn it, memorize it, and understand it.

But at some point in life, most people lose their curiosity and fervor to learn new things. And after a while, their ability to learn new information deteriorates.

Several years later they try to learn a second language and can’t believe how hard it is. If only you were a kid still, right?

Wrong.

As it turns out, your ability to learn is like a muscle: the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.

That means that the more time and energy you spend on learning languages, the easier it becomes for you. Add to that the fact that you already have a working understanding of at least one language, and you are set to learn new languages even better than kids do!

Take a look a most polyglots (people who know 5+ languages) and you will see that they are incredibly good when it comes time to picking up a new language.

“Oh, I know five languages now? Maybe I’ll pick up a sixth. No problem.” -Inside the mind of a polyglot

Their brains are so used to learning new languages, that it might only take a few short months to get to full fluency.

Bottom line for this section: Kids have a better brain than most adults at first. If you’ve never learned a second language, then it will probably be harder for you than a kid whose brain absorbs everything it comes into contact with.

But once you start working your brain out by learning a language (or two) you eventually grow stronger than that pesky two year old, and then you get to show them up!

What Role Does The Environment Factor Play?

Learning a language takes a lot of input. And the biggest source of input that you can find is the everyday environment that you work, play, and live in.

Think about a kid who is learning a language. They are surrounded at all times by people and things that speak the language they want to learn.

Think about the adult who is learning a language. They usually spend 30-60 minutes per day with the target language, before going back to their primary one.

Why is this factor important? Think about it this way: As an adult, if you’re pretty disciplined, you might spend 1 hour per day studying the target language. That adds up to 365 hours per year and it only takes about 3 years to break 1,000 hours.

Kids on the other hand are learning, seeing, hearing, and attempting to use the language for pretty much the entire time they are awake.

Even though it’s not a focused practice, the sheer volume of the language makes up for the haphazard way it’s presented to them.

Let’s say that kids get about 12 hours of language exposure per day. It might be more or less depending on how often people interact with them, and how long they sleep, but I think it’s a fair number to use.

After three years the kid has had over 13,000 hours with the language!

Compare that with the adult’s 1,000 hours and is it really surprising that “kids learn languages better” than adults?

Maybe it’s not so much that kids are amazing, as it is that they are better utilizing their surroundings each and every day.

Learning a language for adults it usually a task, a chore, a goal.

Learning a language for kids is life!

Speaking of adding things up: Kids naturally have a better learning environment. But the flip side is that they have no choice about it. That’s where you as an adult can win the game. Take control and change your environment to the language of your choice!

Who Has a Better Attitude and Who Needs to Check it?

Here’s the interesting thing about beliefs: They are almost always true for people, no matter what they are.

Lots of adults think that learning a language is hard or impossible. And for them in particular, it is. I don’t doubt that a person with unsupportive beliefs about themselves has a hell of time at it.

But what are the beliefs of kids? Well, if they have any at all, they’re most likely not bad ones like “This language is impossible!”

Actually, when you observe kids you notice something interesting: They learn by watching others.

If you are pulling out weeds in your garden and you kid sees it, he will think that “people are supposed to pull out green things from the ground.” That’s just the way it is, right? “Daddy did it, so now I must do it as well!”

Never mind that Daddy was pulling out weeds and kiddo is actually pulling out the vegetables, but whatever! It’s all good!

Here’s the lesson: If Mommy and Daddy speak this language, then I speak this language. That’s how it is. How could it be any other way, right?

When you change your attitude from “Japanese is the hardest language to learn” to “Japanese is my language. I will learn it to mastery. That’s just the way it is.” Then your whole language learning life changes.

Kids have a better attitude about language learning naturally, but adults have the ability to change their beliefs to whatever they want.

In other words, kids win this part by default. But YOU in particular can win if you rewrite the stuff between your ears!

How are the Approaches for Learning Different Between the Two?

Kids have a simple approach: listen as best you can, and try to figure it out!

In all honestly, Mom and Dad do a pretty good job of talking to the kids as they grow up and correcting any mistakes they make along the way.

But unless a parent plans out how they are going to teach the kid a language, then it’s a pretty haphazard approach with all sorts of random words being used and little to no explanation along they way.

Perhaps it’s a bit different if the parents teach them a second language as they grow up, but for the most part kids learn within a sphere of chaos.

Flip that over to an adult, and it’s the exact opposite. Usually someone who takes it upon themselves to learn a language will get a course or a book that teaches the language in a systematic method with plenty of explanations and example sentences provided.

The first 1,000 words that a kid learns might be all over the place with only a small amount of them being useful for everyday stuff, but an adult can decide what kinds of words they want to learn before they get started on the journey.

Maybe an adult wants to know some basic phrases for situations like meeting someone, eating at a restaurant, or whatever. They can find those topics in a good phrasebook.

Or maybe they want to focus on the top 2,000 most used words initially, and then branch out from there once they’ve established a nice useful base of vocabulary. All they have to do is look inside a frequency dictionary for those ones.

Basically, adults get to choose what they learn and when they learn it. Kids have to just take whatever they can get.

There is one thing that kids tend to do better than adults though when it comes to learning methodologies. That is, kids tend to actually speak the language all the time, even when they make lots of mistakes.

Adults generally don’t like to sound silly when they are communicating, so there is an embarrassment factor, or a lack of confidence.

On the other hand, kids seem to not care at all when they butcher the language. What did you do as a kid when your mom corrected your English? I’m pretty sure I just rolled my eyes and went on about my day.

Most likely the only reason I eventually succumbed to using correct English is because the large amount of it eventually drowned out anything that was incorrect in my head.

To Be The Best, Learn Like The Best

Did you see a pattern in the results? Kids beat adults by default on almost everything when it comes to learning a language.

But all it takes is a little intention and effort on your part to make a comeback and zip past those rugrats to win the race!

In other words, you as an adult are *potentially* much more powerful when it comes to learning a language. But only if you actualize that potential.

Otherwise, little Booby kicks yo butt!

What other ways are kids better than adults at learning languages? Know of any ways that adults naturally excel at?

Let me know in the comments section below!

4 Comments

  • Abe Wine

    I feel like babies and toddlers can pick up languages more easily because they are effectively being taught them every minute o their waking lives. Whenever somebody speaks the child will hear it and take those words into their memory. For an adult learning a language they only spend a few hours a day and so they learn it more slowly.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, I believe you are totally right on that one! Not only are babies in “learning mode” the entire time they are awake (and apparently asleep too!), but also they are actively trying to figure out what the meaning is of the words that they are hearing.

      As adults, we’ve spent so much of our lives only listening to the languages we grew up with, that our brains have been trained to ignore unfamiliar words and sounds. So when you do hear a foreign language, you tend to ignore it instead of trying to figure it out.

      The best way to combat this situation as an adult, it probably through lots and lots of comprehensive input. 

  • Daniel

    I think one of the reasons kids are so good at learning is because they pretty much believe anything you tell them without question.

    So if you tell them how to say a certain phrase, they just accept that fact and stat using it right away. They might not even really comprehend what they are saying, but they still use it anyway and figure out the meaning later.

    Whereas adults seem to always need to “understand” everything completely when learning something new. It kinda gets in the way when you’re learning Japanese because there are many time where the answer to “why” something is a particular way is “because that’s the ways it is.”

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah I’ve seen that too where a grownup is basically trying to understand Japanese within the structure of English. Unfortunately it doesn’t really work that way since the two languages are so different.

      I think that using English is like using training wheels for a bike. It’s a great idea at first so that you can “get up and go” with the language and start having a lot of fun with it.

      But then at some point you really have to ditch it because there are certain aspect of Japanese that simple don’t exist in English. If you can accept that idea, then your journey should actually become easier.

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