Language learning - adults and toddlers

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I've had an interest in language learning for as long as I can remember. As a child I would often come home with material to learn various languages, but always had issues such as procrastination and loyalty to learning to overcome!

I've been very pleased with my progress in learning Spanish now, as an adult. However, the language I really would like to be learning is German. I wonder, is it a good idea to be learning two languages at once, or better to wait until I have done most of my Spanish studies and feel confident in my fluency of a second language before adding a third? Anyone have experience with this?

Also, my employer gave me the okay to introduce her two year old daughter to Spanish (I am a nanny) So I am quite excited about this! Any thoughts on doing this? She is incredibly bright and well spoken in English for her age, and makes up her own languages. So I've talked with her about how people in different places speak with different words. She has some bilingual books so we read both and I use Spanish when I can. She just listens and acts like everything is perfectly normal, even if I know she has no clue what I'm saying. I figure she probably is picking up on quite a bit. I've taught Spanish to older children, following a home school curriculum, but I don't think thats the way to do it with a toddler. Thoughts? I feel comfortable and confident in this approach that I am using, but feedback from someone who has done this would be most appreciated.

2822 views
updated AGO 12, 2009
posted by Andrea-Fahy

6 Answers

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We came to live to the US when my kid was 5 years old. He hardly knew any English. We sent him to a regular school kindergarten and after a month he was able to speak, and two months later he was speaking better than me (I have more than 8 years of English classes). So I think that in a little kid like she, just interacting with and speaking the languaje, even very limited at the beginning, is a very good way to learn it.

updated FEB 25, 2011
edited by 00e657d4
posted by 00e657d4
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At the moment there are only unchecked theories about how to learn languages, but it is a well known fact that children are normally going to learn a language better than a adults if they live in the country. Using conventional school methods (ie. textbooks, grammars,...), an adult will learn a lot faster than a child.

In any case, a child living in a country is likely to be exposed to the language many hours of day (maybe between 5 and 10?), which is like a very intensive course. Assuming only 5 hours a day, this is 150 hours a month in total, and up to 300 hours if the child has 10 hours. A person attending 1 hour language lessons from Monday to Friday, is exposed 21 hours a month. Only because of this, we should expect 7.5 to 15 times faster learning, but then there is the method and the attitude: people talk to children all the time, very slow, and they repeat the same sentences over and over. An adult living in a foreign country does not have this opportunity.

On the other hand, children are not ashamed to repeat people's words, and they enjoy showing adults the newest words they've learnt; adults don't normally do that when they are learning (they feel embarrassed). Children sing songs, recite nursery rhymes, hear the same stories all the time, tell stories,... Adults learning a new language... well... not really.

I've come across a few people that managed to sound like a native in less than a year (from Switzerland and Russia, to mention two), but unfortunately, I couldn't see them when they were still beginners. I spoke to them for days, we talked about everything, we play jokes, use puns,... and I never managed to catch them with a mistake of any kind: perfect pronunciation and intonation, slang used correctly, no grammar mistakes (not even subjunctive), no unusual expressions... nothing! I remember that I was convinced that one of them was from the south of Spain, and when someone told me that she wasn't even Spanish a few days later, I demanded to see a passport, because I wouldn't believe it. No one could

So some adults can do this sort of things, apparently. Language geniuses? Maybe it's all in their attitude towards languages and speak without shame, I don't know.

Anyway, I am Spanish, my wife is Chinese, and we live in England. We both talk to the baby in our languages, so I'll let you know how it turns out in a few years time.

updated AGO 12, 2009
edited by lazarus1907
posted by lazarus1907
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I've been studying Child Development in college and there are many theories that say the younger a child is, the easier it is for them to learn another language. Toddlers are like sponges and they usually pick up on things very quickly. I would suggest continuing what you are doing and just keep exposing her to Spanish in conversation and reading. I would also suggest making picture flashcards and teaching her what they are in Spanish. Good luck!

updated AGO 12, 2009
posted by STLAmy
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Lazarus, what about research on how children acquire their first language? I am a teacher of small children and I'm sure I remember learning something at the university (much longer ago than I care to admit) about young children having cognitive structures in place for developing language that were not available to older children (age 10?). (I learned all this in the context of teaching (English speaking) children to read.) Does it sound at all familiar to anyone else?

Also, as regards your daughter... I once had a professor who grew up trilingual. She was from Switzerland and lived with three adults, one of whom always addressed her in French, one in German and one in Italian. She was expected to answer in whichever language she was addressed in. By the time I met her she could speak 5 languages and read 10!! So that method worked in very well at least one instance! smile

updated AGO 12, 2009
posted by Valerie
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To answer part of your question, it's better to learn one language first rather than two at a time. As for the toddler part, children are sponges and they have a better chance at learning a language at a younger age. That is not to say as an adult we can't learn a language but it is a little more difficult. smile Good luck! I would also say to immerse whoever is learning the language into that language.

updated AGO 12, 2009
posted by Jason7R
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Toddlers do have an amazing ability to learn languages. They simply need to be exposed to a language for a period of time and eventually something clicks and they "invent" the grammar. This is why in English children say things like "goed" instead of "went" (until they realise their mistake). Adults don't have quite the same ability and have to study in order to make up for their deficiencies.

I believe the average toddler has about 50 times more synapses than the average adult and this diminishes the older one gets. The end result of this is that adults have to spend far longer to achieve the same result as toddlers.

updated AGO 12, 2009
posted by Robert-Austin