What is there about children that makes them such incredible language learners? Does this information mean anything for adult learners trying to navigate the world of learning techniques? In this article I try to combine my perspectives as a teacher of adults, teacher of kids and a language learner.
Differences between adult and young learners are a bit of a common place in the English teaching world. While reminded about them during a professional workshop, teachers usually roll their eyes and stop listening. As many well-established concepts, this one often suffers from people repeating the same things without thinking and making it all a bit of a meaningless ritual. Yes, we know adults and children are different: grown-ups are better at abstract and analytical learning, kids, especially small ones – at imitating accents and responding to the overall message rather than separate words…
Now that the teachers are no longer paying attention, we will try to think of how this knowledge could be useful for adult language learners, even if they don’t have their own children. We know that young learners between 0 and 12 years old are quite good at learning languages – at least in certain aspects such as pronunciation, use of basic grammar and communicative competence. Important linguists keep telling us that a small child is essentially a highly effective language-acquiring machine, and though we no longer have their brains, we can observe the way they interact with language and try to understand which reproducible features make them so successful.
These are successful strategies which are a natural part of kids’ behavior, but can also be sometimes adopted by adults to boost their learning or change the way they feel while learning a language.
Children are creative with language
Anyone who has been to a so-called “communicative classroom” might have noticed that less inhibited and self-conscious reap the most benefits from such learning environment. For sure, this environment is unfair towards people who, like myself, need quiet, systematic and analytical tasks for the best learning – but there is a point to it. Nowadays students are supposed to chat, joke and laugh a lot – and not just because it’s enjoyable, but because it might boost their interaction with language, give them opportunity to play with words, be expressive, emotional and creative – just like kids. Of course children are highly different in temperament and habits, but in general they are much more likely to notice similarities between words, change and adapt them, even come up with their own English-sounding words. And the rule of thumb is – everything that’s funny and that you came up with by yourself is much more memorable.
Application: focus on using new language by yourself, and don’t be shy to say something funny and stupid; as long as it is meaningful, it will help you to remember the language. Noticing rhymes and creating funny songs with words and phrases you know is a perfect way to handle challenging vocabulary – and you can do it on your own, as well as in a group!
Children are tolerant towards ambiguity and unclear rules
We are somewhat used to the fact that a good learner always asks “why?”. However, this might not always be true about a language learner. A common problem is overthinking and trying to come to a complete understanding of a grammar point without making an attempt to use it. Many teachers are familiar with a dreaded question “Is it always like that?” which gives them unpleasant choice between lying to students (unethical), refusing to answer (rude) or going into lengthy explanations which are bound to confuse students much more. Of course resolving this problem is up to the teacher’s professionalism, but if you are studying on your own, try to accept that language systems are highly complex and what we understand as “rules” are always result of compromise.
Application: it may sound a bit dismissive, but try not to get stuck dissecting a specific grammar point and memorizing all exceptions and use cases. As long as you can use the item (even in a very imperfect way) and make yourself understood, you are on the road to mastering it.
Children aren’t really afraid of making mistakes
This point is consistent with the previous two, but also has to do with another well-established language teaching belief: mistakes are not a detriment, but a sign of learning. They are incredibly useful for teachers as a way to diagnose and opportunity to expand students’ language. Those studying on their own often suffer from not having someone to correct them, but even for them mistakes are a part of linguistic grown and a sign that they aren’t just repeating the models, but attempting at independent language use.
Application: when you self-correct, or somebody reliable corrects you – rejoice! It means you are learning, and you have some valuable input to remember. Also, if you are studying with a teacher, it’s important to accept the fact that not each of your mistakes will be or needs to be corrected. One of good teaching strategies will be to focus on mistakes in the target language of the lesson (or something consistent that hinders communication) and to give student some guidance which will help them to self-correct.
Children don’t mind repetition (as long as it is fun)
Why are we doing it again? We have already done this thing! However, teaching research shows that task repetition is a surprisingly good way to improve retention and accuracy of language. Repetition occurs in very different forms in a language class – repeating words and phrases as a drilling exercise, repeating the same story or pitch with different partners, rehearsing a roleplay or a presentation before you present it for the whole class, trying to remember at the end of the lesson the key points of it… and most of these occasions are definitely not a waste of time. You would be suprised with how much eagerness children can sometimes go through the same routine activities, sing the same songs and play the same games – and it helps them retain the language and increase fluency.
Application: while studying on your own, don’t forget about revising and repeating what you’ve learned. There is no shame in doing a task twice! Language always treads a fine line between things which are deliberate and things which are automatic, and many of the “old-fashioned” techniques aimed at “automatizing” your production (remember learning texts by heart?) actually have a lot of value in them – as soon as you keep things balanced.
Inner child and other learning tools
Of course, it is almost impossible to change your learning style and important aspects of your personality. “Childishness” is just one of useful traits for a language learner – and one could argue that attention to detail, tidiness and autonomy could give you an equal, if not stronger, learning boost. But if it doesn’t seem completely unnatural to you and you feel like you might enjoy it – definitely try unleashing your inner child in a language classroom. It is fun, liberating and efficient – and why do we keep learning as adults, if not to feel young again?