There are two fundamental ways to learn a language: learning through classic educational means, and then there’s the way we all first learned our native tongue— the baby way. Chances are that if you’re reading this, then any new languages you want to learn will have to be done through classic educational means, which may involve classes, online study, books, CDs, etc. Even if you decide to live in a certain country and immerse yourself in the culture, you are still likely to approach the language from an adult perspective, using logic, deduction and comparison. If you decided to live with a tribe in the rainforest with no access to any pedagogical material, you would still eventually learn that language and get much closer to learning the way babies do. But the inescapable fact is that once you have already learned a language, you can never go back to that blank slate of learning a language for the very first time. There will always be an element of finding equivalents to what you already know. How do I say « I’m hungry » in my new language? I need to tell this person I’m going for a walk, what are the words for « go » and « walk »? So, if babies don’t have any pre-existing notion of the words « hungry », « go » and « walk », how do they learn?
I have a two-year-old daughter and feel very privileged to see this process in action. Her first recognizable word was « dog » (actually it was « gog », but we knew what she meant), which was unsurprising as we have two of them. She didn’t progress much past « gog » for a long time (« mama » and « dada » came much later) but she is now stringing 3-4 words together to make short sentences and picking up new words on a daily basis. By the age of three, most toddlers are able to speak complete sentences. Parents always say how their babies and toddlers understand a whole lot more than they can actually say. I can vouch for this and so can science. It has been proven that infants have remarkably complex understanding of language well before they can actually speak it.
It turns out that babies are actually much better at learning language than adults. At six months of age, babies can recognize all the sounds that make up all the languages in the world. After six months, they then start to focus on the sounds that they hear the most. As children get older, they increasingly recognize and respond to patterns in the language they are hearing, and in this way they begin to work out that words ending in « ing » or « ed » are usually action words, or verbs as we know them. If you were to hear a completely foreign language now, you would probably have difficulty in figuring out where one word starts and ends. It would just sound like one long continuous babble. This is what it is like for babies, but as they listen day after day, certain patterns emerge and when they hear an unexpected sound, it gives them a clue that the preceding sound was probably the end of a word. Studies have shown how babies particularly focus on unusual or novel sounds.
All this sounds an incredibly complicated and laborious way of learning a language, so it seems all the more amazing that almost all babies around the world can do this well and relatively quickly. It is well known that it is easier for children to become bilingual than adults. Again, science confirms this. In one particularly interesting study, a group of nine-month-old American children were exposed to Mandarin for approximately four hours over one month. After the sessions, the babies reacted to Mandarin just as well as Chinese babies who had heard Mandarin since birth. This shows how incredibly good babies are at picking up the sounds of language. However, a child’s ability to learn a new language fluently decreases substantially after the age of seven, and by the time we’re adults, we are only capable of properly hearing sounds that occur in languages we speak fluently. For example, apparently the English letters R and L sound the same to adult Japanese speakers, although I can’t personally vouch for this.
Babies’ brains are much better at creating the necessary connections than adults are. Maybe this is not so surprising as this is what a baby’s life is: learning and making connections. They don’t have to worry about going to work, managing relationships or raising kids of their own. They are just connection-making factories, absorbing everything they can and figuring out how it all fits together. So, in turn, maybe we can learn from babies? As science has uncovered more about how babies learn, they are starting to see how we can benefit. It has already been proved that speaking to a native speaker of a foreign language is much better than learning from recorded samples and books. Babies themselves learn language much quicker from human interaction than via TV screens. It seems that our brains react much better to physical, human interaction. So, take off those headphones, ditch the CD, get travelling and act like a child again. You may just pick up a new language!