4 Things Children Can Teach Us about Language Learning

Nearly all kids are fluent in their native language by the age of 5.

Is it because they are better at learning languages?

Or is it simply because they learn differently?

While the jury is still out on this one, there is no denying children can teach us a lot when it comes to language learning.

#1 Listening comes first


Babies listen to their native language long before they see it written.

In fact, they already start listening in the womb of their mother.

For the first 4 months of their life, all babies do is listen.

Listening long before they speak or read helps babies learn to pronounce words without being corrupted by the idea of how a written word should sound.

Babies can’t read so they don’t wonder how to pronounce words, they just try to repeat them as they hear them.

Unfortunately, most French courses completely disregard the importance of listening and treat it as a secondary skill.

They start by teaching you grammar and asking you to read.

Some courses don’t even give you the chance to listen to French at all.

That’s why so many learners struggle with pronunciation.

They never heard French so they guessed the pronunciation. They see “merci” written and decide that it probably sounds like “mair-see”.

Unfortunately, French words sound nothing like the way they are spelled and trying to guess their pronunciation will only do one thing: make you sound like a tourist.

If you want to speak French and be understood by locals, you need to make listening to French your number one priority.

Like a child, you need to learn with your ears long before you learn with your eyes.

You need to listen to words several times before you see how they are written and spend lots of time listening to French songs, watching French movies, listening to the radio or watching French TV series.

#2 Progress takes time


After spending 4 months doing nothing but listen, kids start speaking.

Well speaking….

They start making sounds. Baby talk.

After a while, these sounds become words.

Then they become sentences. Broken sentences but sentences nonetheless.

This whole process takes years.

Yet kids never give up.

And you shouldn’t either!

Learning French needs to become a habit, something as easy as brushing your teeth in the morning.

Once learning French becomes a habit, doing it every day requires less resistance because you don’t rely on willpower anymore, you just do it.

According to writer Charles Duhigg, the best way to form a habit is to use a cue, routine, reward system.

For example, you could:

  • Plan your study sessions in advance (every day at 6 PM for example)
  • Write it on your calendar
  • Set up an alarm (your favorite French song for example) to remind yourself to study if necessary
  • .Choose a course like French Together that makes studying French everyday easy
  • Reward yourself at the end of each study session (watch a French TV series, eat a small piece of chocolate…)

Soon you’ll find that memorizing becomes easier, and just like a kid, you’ll quickly make progress.

#3 It’s OK to make mistakes

Children make mistakes all the time.

They say “mazagine” instead of “magazine”, “I goed to the store” instead of “I went to the store” and generally speak without worrying about people’s opinion.

Kids don’t make mistakes for the sake of making mistakes, they make mistakes because they don’t know they are making mistakes.

Mistakes are just a byproduct of their willingness to express themselves.

As a French learner, the only way to avoid mistakes is to remain silent, not a great strategy if your goal is to speak French.

If you want to speak French with confidence, you need to do what children do: accept that mistakes are part of the learning process and that each mistake you learn from brings you one step closer to fluency.

I know speaking French is scary. What if people make fun of you? What if they think you’re just a dumb tourist?

What you need is a safe environment. People don’t make fun of kids who make mistakes because they expect kids to make mistakes.

If you find a French conversation partner or go to a French speaking event, people won’t make fun of you either because they’ll know you’re here to learn.

In a safe environment, mistakes are welcomed as the essential part of language learning that they are.

Still think that speaking is too scary?

Write first!

Use HelloTalk to find a conversation partner you can write to, or use lang-8 to write in French and get free corrections from native speakers.

Whether you choose to write or speak, you need to express yourself in French because that’s the only way you’ll learn from your mistakes.

#4 Repetition is key

Children repeat words hundreds of times before they get their pronunciation right.

Just like Michael Jordan in the famous Nike commercial, they try again and again. And that’s why almost all kids speak their native language fluently by the age of 5.

Failure just isn’t an option.

Things are different for adult language learners. Many language learners read a sentence once and expect to remember it forever.

Unless you’re a genius, this isn’t going to happen. You need to regularly review what you’ve learned so it stays in your long term memory.

Like a child learning his native language, you need to listen to each sentence hundreds of times, you need to repeat it and use it until it’s so anchored in your mind you know you’ll never forget it again.

But you shouldn’t do that in one sitting. It’s important to do it over a long period of time. And the best way to do that is to use a SRS software like Anki, something I show you how to do in this article.

What else do you think children can teach us about language learning?

Benjamin Houy

Benjamin Houy is a native French speaker and tea drinker with a BA degree in Applied Foreign Languages and a passion for languages. After teaching French and English in South Korea for 7 months as part of a French government program, he created French Together™ to help English speakers learn the 20% of French that truly matters.

10 thoughts on “4 Things Children Can Teach Us about Language Learning”

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  1. This is a very interesting article that although we know it, we do not practice. As you said, Children learn languages in a natural way without being prejudiced by the environment or the written expressions. They do not translate, do not ask about grammar and do not make comparisons. They just learn by context.
    I do believe that it is the right way. I personally encourage students of any second language to make listening priority number one.
    I personally bought the French Together course because it is oriented to that objective and little by little they introduce some grammar points.

  2. I am the mother of five and grandmother of nine. I have also been teaching French as well as English for over fifty years. I have kept notebooks documenting the sounds the babies made as they were “listening” and later their first utterances. When I am in a classroom, I use poetry, nursery rhymes jump rope jingles, etc., and songs so that structures and vocabulary are reinforced and repetition becomes an expected and natural part of the experience. Even forty years later, former students will tell me they can still recite some of the poems they learned in their beginning years of study. When choosing the poems and songs, I pay particular attention to pronunciation challenges and vocabulary but, perhaps more importantly, to the difficulty of any grammatical structures . By building on these opportunities for repetition in a systematic way and encouraging students to be creative and change phrases and wording, they learn to manipulate these structures.

  3. Very wise advice — the line that “jumped out” for me is that children, when they make mistakes, haven’t thought about what other people think of them. I hate being told my accent is charming. But I now understand that many French people are embarrassed by their accents in English, which I find, yes, charming. I didn’t make any progress in French until I had a strong “talk” with myself and said: get out there, make yourself understood, no matter what you think you sound like: this is the best I can do people, deal with it! became my attitude. Made a huge difference. But now that so many more Parisians speak English, they insist on changing the conversation to English. I wish I had developed my “attitude” sooner! Get over feeling self-conscious!

  4. Your students do sound like perfect students :). I was teaching French to children in Korea and the students were motivated but also exhausted (my class was sometimes at 10 PM) so it wasn’t easy.

    The French Together method is basically the opposite of the traditional grammar-first approach. You start with a real-life conversation, spend lots of time listening, and only learn grammar at the end, in context. Both are complimentary and I believe you’ll enjoy it.

    • I should have mentioned this, although you probably surmised it. The Areva employees–the men–and all the children spend all day every day in total-immersion English environments, so I have the luxury of not having to “get them talking,” and, odd as it may sound, they all want the grammar lessons. They learn vocabulary simply by being immersed in it all day every day (except for the ladies, whose situation is different), so they actualy feel the need to know the grammar so that they can use their vocabulary intelligibly. So it is the ladies to whom I teach grammar and then hand off to the local minister’s wife for the conversation club. And she also invites them to her home and takes them on shopping excursions (craft fairs or shopping in town and so on), so my task is far easier than it would be if they were completely reliant on me and my two lessons per week (4 hrs total). Anyway, it’s a successful operation, and we all enjoy it very much. I have a bit of a knack for making grammar less boring than it really is. So we all enjoy our time together. They even invite me to all their parties, and it helps, too, that there is a local Alliance Francaise, too. This is in Aiken, South Carolina, by the way.
      Also, how much will your course require me to be online? Are things downloadable, or how does it work?( I have a particular reason for asking this; it’s not just idle curiosity. )

  5. From the age of 0 to 5, we adjust our speech when we speak to the children. From “mama”, “papa” to thousands of “why” questions and simple stories before bed, the children get thousands and thousands of customized lessons around the clock.

    As an adult learning a new language, we do not get this kind of attentive lessons from native speakers. In any case, it sounds like you’re saying we have 5 years to become fluent in a language. I think that time frame is doable.

    • 5 years is definitely doable but how fast you become fluent depends a lot on the amount of time you dedicate to learning French. I have a (Korean) friend who moved to Paris and was more or less fluent after a year. However, she:

      1) Forced herself to speak French only and banned English from the very beginning
      2) Was studying for a few hours every day
      3) Spent one to two hours a day speaking with native speakers and getting feedback

      This said, learning French is way more complicated for a Korean or Japanese speaker than for an English speaker, and I believe becoming completely fluent in one or two years is doable for most English speakers (this still requires lots of work though).

      As you say, children get a ton of feedback and it’s just not realistic for most adults to do the same but it’s still possible to recreate a similar environment by finding conversation partners and spending lots of time listening to the language.

      • I learned German in the way your Korean friend did–sitting down to a table with a grammar book for hours a day–no mater what. But I teach English to native speakers of French and I taught English in Germany, and I have learned that very few people can discipline themselves to the “hours of study every day no matter what” method, and I have had great success advising my students to study for 10 minutes or fifteen minutes a day. They are quite able to do that much and the results have been amazingly good. This, as you know, is simply because different people learn in different ways, and those who find the idea of two hours’ study a day daunting are finding that 10 or 15 minutes a day is helping them to make rapid progress. I plan to order your 30-day course in June, hoping not only to improve my French but also hoping to learn some new ideas for teaching techniques. Thanks for what you are doing. I look forward to taking your course and learning a bit about your methods and approach. Best wishes!

        • You’re right, most people can’t spend one hour a day learning French. To be honest, I can’t either. I’m learning Russian and “only” study 30 minutes a day on weekdays.

          The most important is, as you say, to find the learning style and schedule that best suits us.

          I’m curious, how much German can your students speak after a few months studying for 15 minutes a day?

          • Thanks for your note. Well, I don’t teach German. I lived in Germany for 5 yrs (1982-87), where I taught English. I’m now teaching English to native speakers of French (all French nationals) who work for Areva, the French National Nuclear Power Company, and they are here as contractors with the US Dept of Energy, recycling nuclear weapons into fuel for power plants. I teach the employees and all members of their families. So they are serious students, highly motivated, very intelligent and literate, and very industrious students, so, try as I might to convince them not to overdo it between lessons (two per week) and not to push themselves to the point of frustration, which, as you no doubt know, is the death knell for language learning, they seem somehow hell-bent on mastering English in a matter of months or even weeks. Teaching such students is a dream and a joy, as you will surmise, but I am particularly concerned that they not burn themselves out. Easy does it. Rome wasn’t built in a day (or PAris wasn’t built in a day). BUt they will push themselves. But having said all that, I must explain that they are here for three-year tours of duty, although most try to extend to five if they can swing it, and Areva pays for 100 hours for their employees and for 50 hours for family members. So what I do is to teach them grammar–yes, th boring grammar. Then I place them into an English Conversation Club at a local church. So I give them the foundation and then hand them off to this church, where the pastor’s wife is ESOL-certified, and it is she who gets them talking. IT’s a good and successful system. It works. And I especially concentrate on grammatical writing skills for the Areva employees, since everything at the nuclear facility is done in English, and an error in grammar could cause some serious problems. So my situation is different from yours, so I use a different method, although I recognize the value of your method. I’m going to take your course myself, in fact, as a sort of refresher (although I give instruction in French until we reach the point at which I judge that it’s time to start weaning them away from that crutch), and as preparation for an intensive course in Toulouse this fall. And also because I want to familiarize myself with your method. So I expect to order your course when school gets out and my students have gone off to the Grand Canyon or Washington or the other places they like to go to–Cape Canaveral, for example, to visit the Kennedy Space Center and see rocket launches. Then I’ll have the time to devote to learning your method. And I do look forward to it. Best wishes to you!

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