Learning a new language is no baby talk

The best time to learn a new language is around teenagerhood and beyond. Yes, learning at a younger age is always an advantage and young children absorb a new language faster if they happen to be immersed in the respective culture. But they also forget it easier if they are removed from it. Their language abilities disappear just as their childhood memories fade and a curtain is drawn between the cultures of childhood and adulthood, through language.

An adult’s language learning experience is much more sophisticated. However, there is something adult learners almost always miss: again, the culture of childhood. Have you noticed that bilingual parents who raise their children bilingual always find it easier to speak to their kids in their own childhood language? It carries the emotional connection associated with a parent-child relationship and also contains the vocabulary of what the world of a child is made to be.

On the other hand, however sophisticated an adult language learner is, she or he will not have acquired the baby talk, the playground dialogues, the children’s rhymes and stories typical for the specific culture. As someone who first started learning Spanish in school, I am not familiar with the rhymes and games children play and with the culture-specific children’s mythology. A Spaniard friend of mine was surprised that I had not heard of something as basic as the rhyme “Los papas van corriendo” or the traditional games like Patata caliente.

Childhood language is also more difficult for an adult learner. It may seem that baby talk is the most logical and elementary first step into a new culture. But it is not. Try starting learning a new language using the traditional children’s books in that language and you’ll experience that curtain between childhood and adult culture that will block your progress. As elementary as your goals are, you can’t start learning German with the first-grade primer German kids use. It’s a different world.

Hopefully this is not a pessimistic comment on the definitive separation of children and adults in two different cultures. But it is an invitation for adults to learn children’s culture and language and yes, pay attention to what kind of world we are constructing for them, just how starkly separate it is from ours and be cognizant of the effort it takes or sometimes culture shock involved for them to just grow up. And how isolating can it be for them to be children.

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3 responses to “Learning a new language is no baby talk

  1. Hi Elly, I thought your reflections are quite accurate. Your first language will always be your first language. In Italian they talk about “madrelingua” speakers as the most appropriate to teach a foreign language.

    Currently I am working on Spanish and practice with chldren in the schools. Today I was teaching music and one of the bilingual students asked me why I was teaching in English. “It’s just easier for me, I was born speaking English,” I said. But then I tried to tell them in both languages. Speaking in one and then the other is generally a sobering experience, because I must know, and I’m not exagerating, about 20 times as many English words. I think I can learn more and more Spanish, and that’s exciting, but I know very well that for my Spanish capabilities to catch up with my English is … impossible.

  2. Yes, it is difficult to teach in a language that is now your own! But even teachers have an easier time doing that than parents who decide to raise their children in a language different than their own. Mainly because their discourse is more scripted and less intimate than parents’, and does not involve child talk.

    As about the widely spread Italian belief that a native speaker is the most appropriate choice for a language teacher, I know that all too well 🙂 Not personally, but through an American colleague of mine, who lived in Italy for a few years, working as an English teacher. He was considered to be (and consequently paid as) a non-native speaker of English because he was considered to be speaking a dialect and not real British English. This belief is a remnant of an approach in which phonetics and pronunciation ruled the foreign language acquisition methodology and the teacher was the only resource for imitative learning.

    Do tell how your teaching in Spanish goes! That would be very interesting to me.

  3. danmihalache

    hi,
    like always, it’s a pleasure to visit you.
    it’s a long time from my last visit.
    i design some houses in greece on the beach, in an island and i have not internet there. when i come home, i must renew my sites (i have over 30 now) (the architecture laws, normatives and rules), go to see my son, my friends and relatives. on the next beach works an english architect from atkins, with tom wright as chief project, so i’m very proud to build next the greatest architect in the world, but i must do my best for this.
    anyway, i’ll try not to forget my friends, and, axiomatic, you are one of them.
    i hope to hear from you soon,
    dan

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