Learning languages with a 2-year old

I just got back from spending a few days in Taipei, my first trip to Taiwan, it’s night markets, museums, mountains, and great food.  I had a wonderful time, and as far as language learning is concerned, an interesting experience. I stayed with some gracious friends, Jarom and Linda McClellan, who also have a small son named Jadon.  You might say that Jadon and I are both learning Chinese at the same time.

My trip also coincided with the recent release of the TED video of Deb Roy’s experience where he video recorded over 90,000 hours of his son’s first three years of life.  If you haven’t seen it, check it out.  So, child language acquisition was also on my mind. Anyway, there are two main observations, which I already knew but which were reinforced by the experience.

First, kids work hard to speak.  There is nothing passive about child language acquisition.  Jadon was a non-stop talker, playing over and over again with sounds and words.  As adults we often talk about how easy it is for children to learn a language, but that is only partly true.  They work at it hard, non-stop, and over and over again. You wanna learn a language?  Try putting in just a small portion of the effort that little kids put into it.  Of course part of the issue is that their cognitive development coincides with their linguistic development (I already know what a donkey is), but either way it was amazing to watch.

Second, adults model words to kids in slow, emphasized, simple, and repeated ways (is that a cow? do you see the cow?  can you say cow?). Knowing it was temporary, I kind of enjoyed being exposed to vocabulary that way for a couple of days. (No, I’m not advocating that adults should learn vocabulary like first language learners.)  Anyway, both mom and dad would repeat words, modeling things for Jadon.  I recall specifically one instance where we were playing “it this your nose? is this your mouth? is this your ear?” and I was also playing along.  Suddenly I noticed that when Linda again repeated the phrase, her tones for erduo (ear) were different from mine.  I actually found myself adjusting my tones, based on mommy’s modeling during the game.  Here I was, going through the experience just like a little kid.  I actually felt a little jealous that as adults we don’t get the adjusted motherese spoken to us more often.

Thanks Jadon, I can already imagine the conversation that we’re going to have some day in the future when I tell him of the days when we learned to speak some Chinese together.

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2 Responses to “Learning languages with a 2-year old”

  1. Scot Says:

    Sounds like a teaching technique in the making. But then the students would think you were crazy and scoff at being treated like toddlers. But it is an interesting concept, especially as I seem my two year old’s vocabulary, grammar, and context substantially blossom each day.

  2. Tommy Says:

    I did see the TED video. It was interesting to see how the child’s pronunciation morphed over time. Also a good reminder to document progress.

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