Believe it or not, you are just as good at languages as your kids

Author: Karin Waldhauser: Learning a language as an adult

If you’re raising bilingual kids, and you are the speaker of the majority language at home you’ve maybe gone through something like this:

I should learn my partner’s language, but:

  • it’s too hard
  • I’m hopeless at languages
  • she/he speaks my language so well it’s just embarrassing …

I often hear people saying that children can pick up a language in a finger snap. Adults, on the other hand, require hundreds of hours of language lessons to become competent.

We have to listen to stultifying recordings of someone telling us in slow, clear speech that the train to Berlin leaves at 12.30, or that, yes, the room price includes breakfast.

We then have to practise arranging our lips into funny shapes in an attempt to pronounce things properly, or suffer through people shaking their heads sorrowfully because we’ve used the wrong guttural-clicky-tone at the wrong time.

We forget words, get the grammar wrong, struggle to remember things we’ve been told a million times. Kids seem to just open their mouths and let the language flow out.

Learning a language as an adult

Despite all this, adults are not worse at language learning than children—at least, not much worse. Yes! Really! Learning a language as an adult is possible.

So why does the rumour persist?

Standards are different

Let’s say your three year-old is fluent in English and French. Sure, they’re bilingual, meeting all their development targets, but still, they’re three—they’re fluent for a three year-old. They say things like ‘I not want to do it!’ which is cute when a three year-old says it, not so much when a thirty-three year-old says it.

Adults, however, are already (hopefully) completely fluent in their first language. We can effortlessly construct complex sentences, we have good vocabularies and can use idioms and colloquialisms to colour our speech. Our expectations are high, so we get put off if we can’t speak a language well after a few short months of lessons.

An adult’s brain is a jumble of knowledge of sentence structure, tenses and what-not. Small children just use the words they know to get the message across. As anyone who’s had a three year-old can tell you, you might not understand all the words, but their meaning is usually crystal-clear.

Children spend their entire childhoods developing their language skills. So, if after a year of lessons you’re still speaking like a toddler, give yourself a break. That’s not bad.

We’re taught differently

Most bilingual children speak two languages because either or both of their parents speak a language different from the community language. They acquire their languages by living them. Even if they receive formal language support at school, they’re still not going to sit in a classroom and conjugate verbs. They learn language through activities, music and stories.

We adults, on the other hand, tend to take classes, or try to learn with books or language apps.

Unlike a 19 year-old on an exchange year, we often have jobs, families and other responsibilities that make it difficult to fully live in the target language.

Also, we’re old and we’re tired.

When adults are immersed in a language, like kids often are, we actually do pretty well.

Pronunciation is important, but isn’t everything

Yes, kids are programmed to be able to mimic us brilliantly—it’s how they learn. At some stage in late childhood we lose that ability.

Lots of adults simply can’t hear the difference between how a native speaker pronounces something and how they’re saying it (just ask any German learner who can’t distinguish between ‘nackt’ (naked) and ‘Nacht’ (night)), but usually the context helps avoid confusion.

Who cares if you don’t speak with a perfect accent? Some people live in a country for forty years and still have an accent.

Just because your six year-old rolls her eyes at your attempts to pronounce French vowel sounds (seriously, what is with all those extra letters?), doesn’t mean that you can’t be understood. Good enough is good enough.

Give it a go, learn a language!

Babies and younger kids have one major advantage over adults in language learning:

They just don’t care. They have no inhibitions.

So take a leaf out their book and just give it a go! You will find that learning a language as an adult isn’t as difficult as you think.

And if not you can always use this approach as a fall back!

Raising bilingual kids? Check out our Expert Advice page written by Speech Therapists! Follow Bilingual Kidspot on Facebook and join our Online Community Group.

Learning a language as an adult