The 5 Things You Should Know about the Way Humans Learn Languages

By OptiLingo

When you look around, it can be incredibly surprising just who knows more than one language. It can even be shocking to learn when someone learned a second or third language. When you encounter that rare person who knows over a half dozen languages, your mind can be blown away by the discovery.

But the real question is “How do people learn languages? “

Regardless of the learning method that works best for you, all people go through roughly the same process. You don’t have to be particularly adept at any language to manage the acquisition of a second. You don’t have to be particularly intelligent either. These things do help, but they aren’t necessary.

Anyone can learn more than one language.

It’s largely about the learning process itself.

Nearly All Children Learn a Language

If you need proof that anyone can learn a language, talk to a five-year-old. The kid may not be as adept at expressing himself, but there is no doubt the child knows at least one language. By simply being able to speak one language, you have proven that you can learn any language.

Initially, we learn language through statistical learning. That means you learn through observation and make generalizations based on what you learn. You point at an infant’s mother and say Mama. Over time, the infant learns the correlation between the word and the person.

The other part of that process is using the learned language. If the child spends all of his or her time simply observing, that child isn’t going to retain nearly as much as the child who interacts with others. Usually this is done through questions that children learn to answer, such as choosing a food or drink. The interaction encourages the child to use the language too. Interaction is essential to learning a language.


Learning as an Adult

Both statistical and social learning which are vital for a child to learn a language also apply to how adults should learn. Of course, the learning structure ends up being very different because the adult social world is nothing like the social life of an infant or toddler.

In the end, it’s about understanding the rules that help you to learn as an adult.

Why Adults Don’t Learn the Same Way as Children

It would be amazing if we could learn a language like we did as children. It seems like it was so easy because we don’t remember having to learn.

Unfortunately, adults (even teens) really don’t have the luxury that children have when it comes to learning a language. Here are some of the main reasons.

  • You already know a language. That means you are accustomed to thinking and expressing yourself in a particular way, something that infants and toddlers don’t have. You will be inclined to fall back on what you already know instead of pushing yourself. This hardwiring is something you have to overcome when learning a new language.
  • Adults have the added hindrance of conforming to social sanctions. You don’t want to look stupid or feel uncomfortable, so you opt to skip practicing so that you can remain comfortable. Adults are far less likely to engage in talking in their new language, which ultimately means the language is never truly learned.
  • There are certain expectations of adults that are not there for kids. Yes, native speakers may be surprised that you know some of their language, but they will also acclimate to the idea quickly, which creates expectations that you may not be able to meet at your current level.
  • Adults are accustomed to being equal in a conversation. By talking in a language that is less familiar, they are relinquishing their position as an equal (this isn’t actually true, but it can certainly feel true).
  • Adults do not have the luxury of time to learn. You are constantly pulled in different directions, making it hard to work learning a new language into your schedule.
  • Adults have to work at it. This can be the biggest deterrent because you may not understand the benefit. Even if you do, you may end up weighing the benefits against the challenge of learning.

Even if adults and children learn in a way that is similar, there are certain elements of being an adult that make it much more difficult to apply the same learning skills as children. There are too many reasons not to.

Adults also do not have a critical period to learn a language. A child’s brain is prepared to learn a language from the time they are born until about 5 years old. This long, critical period makes it considerably easier to learn a language. However, it is also essential to learn, which adults miss since they already know a language.

5 Tips to Improve Your Learning Potential

Yes, it will be more challenging to learn a language, and you don’t have the same pressure to learn as an adult. However, it doesn’t matter who you are, you can learn another language.

The following are 5 keys that will help you unlock your potential to make the most out of your learning experience.

  1. You can strengthen your brain’s language learning mechanisms as soon as you start learning a language. Perhaps it isn’t quite as readily available, but it is still there. You just need to retrain your mind to rethink ideas and experiences in another way. This is one of the biggest advantages to learning faster.
  2. Just like a child, you rely on the statistical learning method, you just employ it differently. Children soak up a language, while most adults do not. Your statistical approach must be more purposeful to reach your goal. However, when you consider you don’t have the same pressures, it seems like you have the bigger advantage. The key is to learn how to apply the method in a way that works for your adult brain.
  3. Social interaction is essential, even if it is executed differently. Of course the adult version of you does not want to be baby talked to, so this may seem obvious. Still, it is far too easy for people to forego the social interaction that is essential to learning. You also have the added advantage of having comparable scenarios in your native tongue. This can be a bit of a hindrance, but at least it gives you a point of reference in your interactions.
  4. Reset your mind so that you can more easily hear the sounds that are foreign to you. Remember how hard it was to hear some of the sounds as a child (you can hear it in the way kids talk as they stumble through words like spaghetti and pattern). That is where you are now with the new language. Ignore what you know about sounds and actually listen to the way native speakers pronounce words. You will quickly find that it isn’t quite what you thought.
  5. Fluency is possible as long as you can work under specific circumstances. Immersion is a lot harder in a second language because it usually requires going somewhere else or finding a way to work immersion into a cramped routine. As long as you can manage a setting that forces you to talk, read, and listen in your second language, you can get the immersion necessary to really learn the language.

Of course it is a lot more work for you to learn a new language the further you are from childhood, but it is never impossible. It requires dedication and the willingness to be pushed well outside of your comfort zone. Don’t forget, you can learn a language in far less time than a child. While you will probably always have an accent, you can learn your second language better and faster than many kids will learn your first language.