We hear it all of the time, “little babies learn language effortlessly.” In the academic world there are lively discussions and research about child versus adult language acquisition. During the supposed “critical period” children learn language automatically, and after that period, language learning becomes mechanical and difficult, etc.
The problem is, I don’t actually believe it all. The photograph that goes with this post is a fun shot of me with my grandbaby, Adam. The picture was taken during a recent visit when he was 15 months old. So, a few thoughts about child and adult language acquisition:
1. Effortless – No way. We have to recognize that little children learn languages while they are simultaneously developing cognitive skills. Everything is new, everything is discover, everything is part of piecing together life. There is a fantastic curiosity that goes with cognitive development. When Adam was visiting, he inspected the drawers, pushed every button in the house, looking in every corner, touched everything within his reach. Everything around him was new and exciting. He worked hard, and I mean worked and I mean hard. There was non-stop intensity in all of that curiosity. Little children put gigantic effort into all that is around them. As to learning languages, I simply do not believe that adults put as much effort into discovering, looking, finding, touching, figuring out, and searching. When cognitive skills are developed, we stop putting the same effort into discovering what is around us.
2. Language is easy – No way. Just think how many times a child hears words before he or she starts to use them. “Do you see the ball? Do you want the ball? Do you like the ball? Should we play with the ball? Can you say ball? Where’s the ball? Thousands, there are literally thousands of times that children are exposed to words, phrases, and sentences. Notice also that a child’s world is the here and the now. We may ask the baby if she wants to play with the ball, but we do not ask the baby what she thinks the political ramifications of future US military involvement in the Middle East will mean for conservative republicans. Adult language learners live in a complex world that goes beyond the here and the now. As adults we simply do not limit our language learning to the hear and now. How often do we enroll our language learners in courses, ask them read an article in a foreign language, and then ask them analytical questions about what they think of the content. Really? And then we wonder why adult language learners aren’t talking as much as little children do.
3. Language learning happens automatically – No way. Adam is 15 months old. Truth told, he can barely say “mom”, “dad”, and when he kisses you he says, “muah.” After 15 minutes, if you taught me some Korean, I know that I’d be able to say more than three words. Truth told, little children work hard to even get the most basic of words, and it takes months of attempting, modifying, and trying again.
4. Babies speak without studying – No way. Just think of the feedback that we give little children as they learn language. The first time a baby says “mommy” the whole family breaks out in cheers. Everyone dances around the room, cheering and celebrating. No wonder the baby decides to say the word “mommy” again. As children develop, there is a social side to all that they do. When they learn the word for candy, it is not because they need to perfect their pronunciation or understand the difference between masculine and feminine nouns. When they learn “candy” it is because everyone is celebrating life with one of our great pleasures, the sensational taste of chocolate. Bring it on world, candy! Little children don’t use language to communicate, they use language to socialize. The problem for adults is that we forget that, and decide to learn language to analyze grammar, or to communicate sentences. As adults we forget that socialization is what language is all about. Babies don’t fall into that trap.
So next time somebody tells you that little children learn languages automatically without any effort, challenge that person to put as much effort into discovering the world around them, to expose themselves to input as much as children do, to talk about the here and now, and to focus on language for socialization. And when that person kisses you on the cheek and says “muah” shower him or her with tons of praise and cheer like crazy!