Should You Learn a Language Like a Child?

Children appear to learn their first language effortlessly. This apparently effortless learning often leads adults to believe that they should learn a second language the same way that they learned their first language as children.

Rosetta Stone and other companies have tried this, but is it really a good idea? Before you answer that question imagine that you are a little boy who is just learning to talk.

What Do You Call Animals With Four Legs and a Tail?

One day your mom and dad take you to visit a house where you learn that an animal with four legs and a tail is a cat.

Later you visit a different house but you find that the people who live there also have an animal that has four legs and a tail.  But this animal barks at the mailman, chases cars, and is named Rover.

At this point you have the animals pretty well figured out so you walk into the room, point at Rover, and proudly call Rover a cat!

Fortunately for you, everyone thinks this is cute, and your 24 hours per day language tutors (also called your parents) will cheerfully explain that animals that bark are called dogs.

Children Have Live In Language Tutors

These mistakes are all a wonderful part of growing up, but it really takes children a lot of time to learn their first language.   It takes them a lot of time even though they have loving, 24 hour per day live in language tutors called parents.

Imagine that you are using a computer program to learn French. You see a picture of a young woman running on an athletic track. It’s a fall day and the trees in the background are brilliant red. Below the picture is a French word and a button that you can click on to hear the French word.

Here’s a question about the word you just heard.  Did you just hear the word for running, for jogging, sprinting, track and field, for woman, for young woman, or was it the word for a fall day?

If you think that was difficult, how would you learn to say,  “I would have wanted to come to the party if I had known about it.”

If you can read this article, you obviously understand English.  You don’t need to see a picture  of a dog after you know the word for dog.

Copy the Enthusiasm of Children, Not Their Methods

Children spend a lot of time learning their first language. So copy their enthusiasm, their joy of learning and their willingness to make mistakes and not care about them, but don’t try to copy their learning methods or you will waste a lot of time.

  • Paul

    Dear author:
    Im running into your website by accident and find your point so right about learning the spirits from children rather than their burned motherds. Im trying to learn English and German in next 5 years, and sometimes I do imagine as a child myself when I learn foreign languages. Your article helps me a lot. And so does this one: The best approach means nothing if you don’t use it. Thank you, author.

    • thomas

      Paul –

      Learning English can be a challenging task and there are very few effective ways of learning it short of an immersion environment or private tutoring. is working on developing English study materials for each of the languages we offer. In this way people who speak any of the languages we already offer can start learning English too! Keep an eye out for an announcement when we get that project completed!


  • Liz

    Can teens use Language101? I’m 13 and I was forced to “learn” Spanish at my middle school last year and I remember everything I already knew from Dora and my favorite foods. I’ve been trying this app called Duolingo and I’m not sure it’s workin for me. So would this work for a 13 year old? Or should I wait until I’m 30?

    • thomas

      Liz – has been designed to work for anyone and everyone with a reading capacity for English. Basically in order to use the software you have to be able to first read the English phrase that is being presented. Even in the case of Russian or Japanese the foreign characters do not need to mean anything to the student yet – first the characters have to have a sound associated with their appearance.

      The best thing to do is to try the free lesson. Try it as many times as you like, it’s FREE! Once you know how well the software works for you then you’ll know what to do next… click ‘Buy Now’.


  • sheila ivy

    You left out the most essential reason why “learn a new language like you learned your first language (as a child). NEUROLOGICAL and NEURONAL differences between young children and adults! I also point out what has already been mentioned. 24-hr/day eager language tutors who you also HEAR (escuchar!) Speaking your native language constantly. I would add, too, that it is important to learn basic grammar and how it might be similar to English, as you go along, making sure that your English grammar is tip-top, too. Learn the things of every day conversation first. Start with a dual-language dictionary that is simple and concise, like this comment is not.

    • thomas

      Sheila –

      Great information! Thanks for sharing.


  • Carlos Fort

    The approach of Rosetta Stone is similar to that of a child learning his mother tongue, but not exactly the same. For example, in German, first you are given a picture with only a woman and it says “eine Frau”, so you know that “eine Frau” means “a woman”, then you see, for example, a woman who is running and it tells you “Eine Frau rennt”, as you already know the meaning of “Eine Frau” you can guess that “rennt” means “is running”.
    I think you can use a program like that to get a foundation of the language, and then you can study using other methods from there. We have the advantage of being more intelligent that toddlers, and we can use resources that they can’t use, even if we try to mimic the way they learn languages.
    After you have seen the use of grammar structures, you can study grammar just the way we did with our own language (Spanish in my case), that is, first we were talking, then we were explained how our language worked.

    • thomas

      Carlos –

      Many good points there. One of the key things to notice though with the difference between how children learn and adults learn is that children do not already have present in their minds the connection between the object and the conceptual language reference. For instance I see a blue ball, I think ‘Blue’ ‘Ball’. There is already a neural connection made in my mind. All I need to do as an adult is learn how to speak the old connections in the new tongue. I do not need to learn what a ball is and how to define it as blue, or soft, or hot. I know blue soft hot and ball. What I need, as an adult with a strong language repository, is how to make that thought in English appear now in Russian, or French. It’s only when we get into the deeper aspects of the languages do we run into expressions that are not congruent with other languages. I.e. Double Happiness in Japanese does not have a very effective English equivalent. We might say ‘Joy’ but we would somehow fall short of double happiness. We could attempt bliss yet that would still not be the same expression, hence the reason we, as English speakers, are left with this abstract concept of doubling an emotion rather than having a specific word to conceptualize it. This is getting into the philosophy of language rather than the mechanics of it, which is what needs to be taught before thinking abstractly in the new language can ever occur.

      At the point in time where an individual is choosing to learn a second or third language the only truly important question is this:

      Is this tool working for me so I can progress as rapidly as I can?

      As they say in Hawaii “Efficacy is the measure of truth.”


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