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We’ve all seen young children speaking different languages with their parents. Their capacity to switch from one to another seems as amazing as it does alien to many. But have you ever wondered why there is such a difference between learning a foreign language sooner rather than later? What separates adults and children learning a new language?
To answer that, it’s important to acknowledge the distinction made by linguists between language learning and language acquisition. So, here goes. Language learning is non‑communicative. It is the result of direct instruction in the rules of language, meaning you can fill in blanks on a grammatical task but can’t articulate a sentence. Language acquisition is rather a subconscious, indirect process. You are unaware of grammatical rules, but you know intuitively what is correct and what is not.
That distinction between the conscious and subconscious process is the best answer to our question. Indeed, it has been proven that our subconscious begins to be programmed around the age of 7. Before that, we have a privileged access to it, and that is how kids can learn so many things in their first few years of school. From the age 7 onwards, however, we start integrating all the implicit rules of society and increasingly fear the prospect of making mistakes.
Maybe this will sound familiar. You feel confident enough to start talking in a foreign language, and as soon as you do, your mind goes blank because you start wondering if you are using the right words. But this fear of making mistakes doesn’t have to become your worst enemy. It is the best way to learn.
The more mistakes, the better
We all know practice makes perfect. The very definition of practice is ‘perform (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to acquire, improve or maintain proficiency in it.’ So, why should we be afraid of making mistakes?
It’s not so much about fearing mistakes, but rather the judgement of others, especially if they’re native speakers. Before the age of 7, children are not even aware that someone can judge them for their mistakes, so they just go for it.
Research shows that given adequate exposure to both languages, bilingual children undergo the major milestones in language development at the same age as monolingual children. This means that when the exposure is too limited, a delay in the development of the second language can take place for children learning a new language.
Most experts advise parents to work on an OPOL (one-parent-one-language) basis so that the child doesn’t get confused, but nothing has proved that this rule helps children keep their parent tongues separate. Just as repetition is essential, so is consistency. If you apply the OPOL rule, stick with it. The children will instinctively correct their mistakes themselves by integrating rules over time.
Can we help children learning a new language?
With patience, bilingual children will often mix grammar structures or words, so don’t interrupt them if they do so while telling you about their day. Doing so would only crash their confidence and might even make them reluctant to speak in that language. Instead, wait to see if it was a one-off or repeated mistake. In the latter case, point it out at some point during the day, but again, not by interrupting them. Try to understand where the mistake came from. If it is a lexical one, it could be funny to compare the meaning of the word in both languages. No matter what the mistake is, don’t forget that they are still learning. The point is to boost their confidence. Don’t demonise the mistakes, embrace them.
Being bilingual is also being bicultural, and that is why learning a language should be something fun and alive. Try to integrate games as much as you can. If they keep mixing words, you could design a guessing game. Give them a ‘definition’ and let them guess what the word is.
In other words, practise, practise, practise. It is the only way to become bilingual.
Big believers in spaced repetition, RLI understands the importance of practising often, and of making mistakes so we can learn from them. To find out more about our language training services, simply fill in our form or call us on +44 (0) 1792 450970.