Have you ever wondered how it happens that children learn languages so quickly and easily? What’s the secret of this amazing power of young language learners?
1. The power of novelty
Children absorb new knowledge like a sponge, not just language – everything, because everything is new to them and therefore fascinating. The positive emotions of discovering something new make it all the more memorable. Every time they learn something new, they experience the “eureka” moment. Exactly like learning a new language. It’s not even the fact that it’s a different language that makes is special, it’s simply yet another skill that they can pick up. New words in their mother tongue and foreign tongue have exactly the same “wow factor” value, that’s why it’s so easy to create positive associations with learning languages, before it’s seen as another school subject, i.e. a chore.
2. The love of repetition
Children are keen to mimic and repeat after adults, pretty much immediately. They’ll repeat your movements, gestures, the faces you pull, and of course they parrot what you say – just think of the moments when your child repeated something you weren’t exactly thrilled about them saying! What’s more, they love doing the same things repeatedly, as this is what they feel comfortable with. Think of the favourite book that you read to them until they know it off by heart (and even then, they are happy to have it read again), the cartoon that they can watch day in, day out, the songs they listen to and sing along – all of that is nothing more than learning through repeating the same input. Children have a much better tolerance of repetition than adults, and this is one reason they get good results.
3. They watch like owls
Children’s innate inquisitiveness makes everything new fascinating and thus memorable. What’s really great, they pay a lot of attention to how things are done because they learn by doing. You wouldn’t give a manual to a toddler and expect it to follow it. They need a model of the action. So, they’ll look at you as you’re tying your shoelaces and try to copy your movements the way they see it done.
They will do the same with learning other things, including learning to speak – both in their native language and foreign ones. I remember my little niece when she was about 1, looking intently at people’s mouths, trying to observe the movement they made while speaking and that she was then attempting to replicate.
Kids can see a lot more detail that we, adults take for granted. Do you often think how your jaw moves when you’re producing the “u” sound or what shape your mouth takes when uttering “a” or “e”? For them, it’s the natural way to learn, though.
4. The lack of inhibitions
For them learning is what is it – be it repetition, moving around, making silly noises, rolling on the floor or getting dirty. All they need is positive encouragement and things that capture and maintain their attention. Sure, not all activities will appeal to every child, but once we find the ones that do, out little learner is not going to say “I’m not going to sing and dance with you ‘cause it makes me look silly”.
They treat learning a lot more holistically – they engage all the resources they have at their disposal, often engaging all their senses. That’s why they need to touch, sniff or put new objects in their mouths! I find this very helpful in teaching them languages – they remember things that they touched, felt, had to find somewhere or put together from parts.
5. Mistakes? Ah well…
Children don’t really care about making mistakes – in their first language, foreign language, or any other new thing that they are learning. Do they give up after falling off the bike for the first time? At worst, it may take some tears, as this can be actually painful. In most cases though, they are completely unfazed about doing something wrong and happy to try again, and again, and again… Instead of worrying about how silly they may look if they do something wrong again, they just get on with it!
6. Go, ahead – correct me!
Adults have an automatic authority in the eyes of a small person – you know how to do it, then show me and I’ll learn from you. It’s that simple. Their competence judgement system is very straightforward – either you can do it and I’ll follow your example, or you can’t, and I won’t. As they haven’t been exposed to many different models they could compare, the one that is presented to them here and now is the one they accept as correct.
Remember the funny little mistakes your child made while learning to speak? They never challenged you correcting them, instead they tried to do what you showed them as correct. There is no doubt in their mind that the correction provide by an adult could be wrong.