If you’ve traveled to France and wondered to yourself, “Why didn’t my parents teach me French as a kid?” you’re right to wonder. As a child, learning language comes so much easier than it does later on in life. The idea that the mysterious little creatures you see crawling around are more capable than you are of learning something as complex asa language — and more than one at that — is almost ridiculous. But according to studies carried out by Dr. Charles Yang and other professionals, it’s much easier for children to learn new languages than adults, and you should take advantage of this while you still have time.
According to linguist Dr. Yang, kids learn language through a sort of trial-and-error process. When your little guy was born, he wasn’t really prepared to learn one specific language — the learning happens gradually. If he had been born in France, there’s no reason for him to be any more or less able to learn French than English. He will learn whichever language(s) he is exposed to. Imagine your kid as having this ocean of all the world’s languages stored inside him. Yang suggests that the ability to speak all languages is narrowed down and specified based on what fits with the speech he hears his parents, his family and his peers use. Pretty amazing, huh?
Learning language as a kid comes down to hunting for the different sounds that separate languages; these sounds include differences that are more difficult for adults to pick up on. Developing an idea of all those rules of language, all the differences (like the differences in how people pronounce words in England and America) grow on people as they develop – kids have absolutely no understanding of these rules to begin with! Yang uses an example from the Korean language. When speaking Korean, whether speakers use “L” or “R” doesn’t make any difference to what the word actually means, and adults know this. Research shows that Korean kids can quite easily notice a difference between the two different sounds. So what does this mean? That learning language gets a lot harder as an adult, because adults have developed the specifications that make their native language the one they “should speak.”
Basically, kids can learn different languages because they haven’t yet been trained to understand just one language. They simply hear sounds coming from everywhere, which they take and apply to their situation. If they see Mommy speaking in one language, like English, and Daddy speaking in another, like French, the solution becomes obvious. If you could look inside your kid’s head, you’d probably find something like, “to talk to Mommy, I need to use the sounds that she uses to talk, and to talk to Daddy I need to use the sounds that he uses.” You get the idea.
The Importance of Encouragement
Of course, your little one won’t just develop the ability to speak a different language on his own. It’s true that it can be easy for kids — but that also depends on their parents, and their environment. According to Annick De Houwer of the University of Antwerp, kids rely on things from their parents to help with all language development — from one language to five! One of these things, says De Houwer, is the process of reading — in all kinds of languages. If you provide plenty of books to your little boy or girl, he/she is going to have the resources to really get the most out of his/her freedom to learn.