Why do Kids Learn Languages Faster?
The most common questions or comments we get about our language learning time are almost always related to our children and their speed of language learning. Usually, it's something like, "Your kids will be better French speakers than you in no time!" or, "Pretty soon, your kids will be translating for you."
And I love these comments because I want to encourage our kids in their ability to learn French, and because, as a linguist, I'm having so much fun watching my kids learn a new language. I wish I could record their entire lives during this time to see how they communicate and to see what things they're hearing or starting to understand. It's been so unique to see our 3 kids at such different levels of reading and speaking as they enter into a foreign language environment! I'm half tempted to study them and write some kind of thesis about this time in their lives, but I fear that using them as my research subjects might not be the best!
But why do kids learn languages more quickly than adults? I know this is not always the case, but in general, it proves to be true for most people. So, why? It's a question we've thought about a lot as we prepared to move to Switzerland, and here are some of the factors that we have learned about.
Kids have the ability to skip a translation step when they hear a foreign word. For them, the thing that they see is given a title in French, and that is simply its name. As an adult, we have to put that new word through the framework that already exists in our mind (English) and then we know what it's talking about. For example, pretty much everyone in the world has a name for a four-legged animal that says "woof". When we are taught the word for that animal in French, they say that it is a "chien". So, when we hear that word, our mind has to go through these steps: chien = dog = four-legged animal that says "woof". But kids have the unique ability to assign that foreign word directly to the animal. We’ve heard of parents that asked their child what the French word for dog was. The child had no idea how to answer because, in their mind, it wasn't a translation. That four-legged animal was simply a chien! Getting past that double translation step is a hard challenge for an adult but can go a long way in speeding up the language learning process.
The second reason children tend to learn languages faster is because they also tend to be better mimickers. Similar to the last idea, adults tend to want a letter assigned to each sound so that they can know how to say the sound. Kids, on the other hand, are more willing to simply make the sound that they hear. The problem is some sounds in a new language don’t exist in other languages you may know. And sometimes the same letter represents a slightly different sound. So, instead of hearing a sound, assigning it a written letter, then trying to make it, children are able to skip the middle step. Yet again, adults tend to take the long way around while children are taking a much more efficient approach to making new sounds in a given language. Our two older kids can even perfectly repeat the train announcements…in French and German! They don’t really know what they’re saying yet, but that will come.
Both of these “efficient” methods are possible because the mind of a child is much more moldable and has fewer ingrained elements that they are unwilling to change (whether consciously or not). This means that they can accept new ideas and put those ideas into action much more quickly, which are two absolutely necessary skills for language learning. A great example of this can be seen in a video called the Backwards Bicycle (click on the title to watch it). He builds a bike that turns left when you turn the handlebars right and right when you turn left. What I want you to see is that the shift in thinking is so hard that it takes him months to learn how to ride it, yet his child did it in just a couple of weeks. This ability to take in new information and allow it to change the framework of your mind is a primary element in a child’s ability to learn a new language.
So, what have we seen in our own kids?
We can see them just absorbing everything around them. If you ask them what they know in French, it’s a bit difficult for them to come up with an answer. But when we ask their teachers, they tell us that the kids are able to start hearing instructions and following them without needing to see what the other kids are doing. And when they do say French words, it’s in a perfect French accent!
When we dropped them off at soccer camp, the person checking them in asked, in French, whether they spoke French or English. As I was getting ready to step in and help, Lucy just responded, “Anglais”. I just looked at her with my eyes wide open! And the conversation continued in French. “But do you understand a bit of French?” Her response: “Oui”. I was feeling pretty unnecessary at this point. And they had a great week at camp.
The reality is that they have a huge amount of data coming into their minds and are looking for places to put that information. The misconception is that it is immediate, but that is not the case. As they start to develop a framework that is their understanding of French, eventually that data will click into place.
It has been so fun to watch this process, and it’s a special bonus that we get to learn alongside them. Today, for example, Lindsay and the kids all learned about animals in French! We’re all in this together and are excited to grow as a family.