Why Children Learn Languages “Better” Than Adults

It’s not the age, it’s the method.

About a year ago my aunt moved to Germany with her family, including a 4 years old ball of energy — Nickolas (aka Nicky). This cute little monster is known in the family as the most extroverted one — he will use any chance to talk to a stranger and share his opinion on the weather.

Anyway, during this year my aunt tried to learn German by taking courses, while Nicky played with mini Germans at the kindergarten. Once upon a time (about three months ago) my aunt and Nicky went to a supermarket. At the entrance, one worker started to talk to my aunt in the unknown for her language — German. Nervously looking around, she finally said in English “Sorry, I don’t understand”. To her surprise, Nicky turned to her and translated the man’s words from German to English. Ever since then he became the live version of a Google Translator for the family.

Caricature by Miguel Fernandez on DW
The older we get, the harder learning a new language gets

We all heard it, right? In fact, many agree with this statement because look, I just gave the example! While my aunt to this day struggles with German, Nicky freely (and happily) speaks with his German neighbors about his opinions on the weather. Therefore it’s the age, right?! Wrong.

Let’s put the age aside and look at something many of us missing — the method. While my aunt was attending courses, learning the grammar of the language, and memorizing German words, Nicky was absorbing the language. To better understand what I am trying to say, let’s dive into kid's and adult’s approaches to learning a foreign language.

Kid’s approach

Kids don’t care about the language, words, and grammar. They care about the context. They carefully observe the world and connect adults’ words with their actions — with the meaning of the word, not with its translation. And adults help them by simplifying the language and exaggerating the facial expressions, so the children will understand the context, not the grammar.

Nobody explained to Nicky how German grammar works, instead he simply listened, absorbed the words, and connected them with what is happening around him. Germans would speak with him slowly, using simple words and exaggerated facial expressions. He would watch German cartoons where each word and sentence is followed by the visuals. Therefore he slowly and unconsciously acquired German and now speaks and understands it better than anyone in the family.

Photo by Troy T on Unsplash

This approach works perfectly well because each one of us learned at least one language this way — the mother tongue. For many readers, it was English while for me it was Russian. I never learned the grammar of the Russian language until school. Still, after finishing school, most of the time I already can’t explain to you why we use this structure here while another there. To be honest, the more I think of Russian grammar, the more confused I get with it. This is simply because I didn’t learn Russian, I unconsciously acquired it.

Adult’s approach

The kid’s approach vanishes once we start to go to school and attend boring language classes with its dry grammar and lists of vocabulary that we have to learn by the next week. In the end, we start to believe that this is the only and the rightest way to learn a foreign language.

Though my aunt might know perfectly the grammar of the language and pass the tests on it, once she is out in the real world of the language, she neither understands the natives of the language nor could talk to them.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

You and I are not only the living proof of the kid’s approach to be working, but we are also proofs of the adult’s approach to be failing. Almost each of us took foreign classes at school or college and almost none of us can fluently and confidently speak this language outside of the classroom. And if you do, most likely you exposed yourself to this language in your free time.

Since I grew up in a small mountainous country in Central Asia, called Kyrgyzstan, besides Russian I had English and Kyrgyz classes. As you can read, my English is pretty good: I can write in English (though with some mistakes), fluently speak it and easily understand it. BUT, these are not the results of the school. This is the result of me spending hours and hours watching films, Youtubers, videos in English, and reading English kids’ books (“Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is still one of my favorite books in the world) at home. AND this is the result of me spending a year in Texas as an exchange student where I didn’t learn the language, but simply lived in this language.

Photo by Raúl Nájera on Unsplash

Kyrgyz on the other hand, I took only at school and never learned or exposed myself to this language outside of the classroom. The results? Terrible. And by terrible I mean terrible. I spent about 9 years of my life learning this language at school starting in the 3rd grade till the 11th grade. Here are the words I remember: hello, good, thank you, bear, and moon. That’s it. And unfortunately, it’s not a joke. What is even funnier is that I have an A for this class in my high school diploma.

You see, if the age was as important as we all think it is, I should’ve picked up Kyrgyz by the 5th grade after learning it for several years at a very young age. But I didn’t. In fact, nobody did. Every one of my classmates has been learning Kyrgyz the way I did and none of them can speak or understand it. The only ones who can — have Kyrgyz families.

What about my classmates’ English? Do they have good results with it? Theoretically yes, practically no. Most of them could more or less understand English texts, audio, exercises and teacher’s monologue in the classroom; successfully pass the tests and exams, and even slowly speak it with a very harsh accent, but they never were able to have a real (even the most simple) conversation in English with a native, because “he speaks too fast” and “I know perfectly the grammar, but I can’t use it in real life immediately”.

Of course, there are several classmates of mine who understand native English pretty well, but again, it’s not because of the school, but because they immersed themselves in the world of English, by watching films, TV shows, and Youtubers for pleasure.

My experience in learning Spanish as an adult and as a kid

For half a year I’ve been trying to learn Spanish as a “true” adult by memorizing words every day on Duolingo and learning grammar at the boring courses 3 times a week. Though I could say “No hablo Español” and I knew that manzana is an apple, I could hardly speak Spanish and even less understand the simplest dialogues between native Spanish speakers. By the end of the sixth month, I was frustrated.

Photo by Efraimstochter on Pixabay

However, two months ago I decided to be a kid and focused more on listening to comprehensible content, rather than learning the grammar and it works. By watching kids' cartoons, easy Youtube videos, and listening to the Duolingo podcast, I learned more Spanish during these two months than in half a year before. Just a week ago I was able to watch a 30 minutes dialogue between a polyglot and a Latino and I understood it. Not every word, but the context in general. And there was no frustration — only pure happiness so far.

Conclusion

All these years we’ve been believing that age plays the most significant part in language learning, but what if it’s not the age, but the method we use? What if the success in learning a new language lays in immersing yourself in the world of this language rather than learning grammar? Here is what I would suggest to you to try:

If you want to learn a new language, learn from the kids, not the adults

Instead of being a “true” adult by spending hours and hours learning grammar in a boring class, become a kid and surround yourself with a language by constantly listening to comprehensible content. At least give it a try. Maybe, in the end, you will be surprised.