Not a Child Anymore….

by multilingualmania on March 31, 2011

in Language Learning

Father to Son

More than any other field of knowledge, the study of languages suffers from some pernicious clichés. Sure, you can excuse yourself from knowledge of higher mathematics in a similar way, citing a lack of talent and too little a need, and everybody will understand because it is difficult to learn indeed. Languages are also considered difficult, but that is not all. It is also widely assumed that you can only truly learn a language as a child, need to have a knack for languages, and have to be where the language is spoken in order to learn it – but then, learning may be near-automatic. These ideas seem so commonplace, the assumption is that they must be true. They aren’t.

Of course, we all manage to learn our first language(s), no matter the talent. Does that mean that it is easy, though? For the beginning, at least, a child may not even notice that it is learning – it just does. Growing up, you have people talking to you, in the language that surrounds you, in baby talk and normal speech, and you do quite naturally pick up the language.

The one thing that is truly different about children’s and adult’s language acquisition is that there does in fact seem to be certain time for learning the sounds of a language. After this period, you may barely even be able to distinguish between sounds which do not exist in your first language. – This is why Chinese and Japanese speakers may have problems telling “L-“ and “R-“ sounds apart, and why speakers of non-tonal (i.e. most) languages do not easily wrap their head (and tongue) around the way in which the tone makes the meaning in languages like Chinese. In languages learnt later, you will therefore have an accent and/or need more effort. In this regard, language acquisition during childhood does occur more easily – naturally, even.

Think about it differently, though: you still study your first language all through high school, whereas you may become fluent in additional languages during a few years of study, e.g. at the university. The problem may be that we become more aware of language learning being an effort, less patient because we have a certain goal, and more demanding in the level we want to reach.

Commonly, another lesson is also drawn from the way children acquire languages: it is assumed that you need to be in context where the language you want to learn is constantly used, and will learn it quite naturally once in such a situation. Facts, as so often, are a bit more complicated: Especially on this connected globe of ours, it is ever easier to immerse oneself in a different linguistic world – through videos, podcasts, websites and blogs, as well as Skype and virtual language partnerships. It is also easier than ever before to find people speaking another language in one’s hometown. On the other hand, it is now only too easy to go abroad and keep immersed in one’s own linguistic comfort zone.

Wherever you are, studying a foreign language will be an effort and take effort, but it is also a worthwhile engagement that will widen your horizon. You don’t have to be a child, and don’t have to learn like a child – but you should try to babble rather than be afraid of mistakes.

About the Author: Gerald Zhang-Schmidt is an independent scholar with a background in ecology and cultural anthropology, writing about his interests at www.positive-ecology.org, www.beyond-eco.org and www.chilicult.com. He hails from Austria, and currently works as German lecturer in China. During his career, he has learned something of nine languages and forgotten much of it again.


Other Articles by Gerald Zhang-Schmidt:
What Languages Do You Speak?
What Multilingualism?
Chinese Lessons on Language Learning

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