Saturday, November 21, 2009

Why does a child learn a language so easily?

Why does a child learn a language so easily?

I believe that independently from the brain developing, a young child learns multiple languages easier because he or she applies the same strategies to this endeavor that he or she applies to learning the home language.

My sister, who lives in Costa Rica, called me the other day to give me a report of my 3 year old nephew’s new goal in life. He has decided that he wants to learn English. He already speaks Spanish at a 4 old level. He is also interested in learning Hebrew. A few months ago he would ask people how to say words in English. Lately, my nephew has been telling his parents “let’s Speak English” (he says it in English). When my sister talks to him in Spanish he says “Mother, speak English only!!!”

What my sister describes, he does go as follows: He will start “pretending” he is speaking English. He uses the English intonation of words and phonetic sounds. Then he adds words he already knows in English to his jargon. He also uses a few phrases he has already learned from books and videos. The important thing is that he is convinced that he speaks English!!!

That is exactly the same way a young child learns his or her first language. During the first year, he or she listens to sounds and words around him or her while discovering the vocal track. During this time, the child responds to the intonation of words more than to the meaning of words. After he or she learns to “babble” and duplicate syllables, the child starts to use jargon. Jargon is when a child can pretty much have a conversation with another person but not necessarily use “true” words. The listener knows that the child is saying something because he or she uses the language pattern and intonation of the language but not necessarily the words. The listener probably cannot understand the words but can follow the conversation thanks to the context and gestures. The listener is delighted to be having a conversation with this child responds to it like he or she understands every word the little one says. This motivates the child to continue trying and practicing. As time passes by, this jargon gets more and more refined and real words start to emerge every day. By age two the child already can understand over 500 hundred words and says 25 to 50. After age 2, the child learns to put words together in phrases (staring with 2-word phrases). By age 3, the child pretty much can have a conversation where 70% of what he or she says is intelligible.

A young child is successful at learning multiple languages because he or she:

• Has the desire and the motivation. The child needs to find the way to communicate his or her needs or the world will pass him or her by. My nephew wants to learn English because he loves to come to Dallas and visit with relatives. He is also exposed to English in videos, games and books. Learning English is cool for him!
• Is willing to make mistakes and continues to try. A child is not concerned about a “grade”. A child does not stop trying because he or she is misunderstood, or because people make fun of what he or she says. When a child stops trying then there is usually a problem. As a speech pathologist when a parent tells me that the child has stopped trying to communicate, and I get very concerned.
• Is not worried about how long it will take to master the language. To be fluent in a language it takes time. A child does not focus on the final goal. He or she enjoys the process. It is about having fun and discovering new words and the rules of language.
• Listens first and then tries. A child first listens and then starts talking. It is common for a child that is introduced to a new language to go through a silent period before he or she is ready to speak the language. This silent period can last a few days to several weeks. It depends on the child. If the problem persists for more than 3 to 6 months or if the child shows changes in behavior consult with a speech pathologist or pediatrician.
• Repeats what he or she hears. We all know how careful we need to be when we talk in front of a child. If we do not want the child to repeat it, we had better not say it!
• Does not rely on translation. A young child does not usually compartmentalize languages separately. A child can learn multiple words for an object in different languages (it is like learning synonyms). He or she does not think in one language before saying what he or she is thinking in another language. This strategy makes the child cognitively more efficient when thinking about language because he or she does not have to do the mental work of translating.

Children that are developing their first language already have the key to learn more than one language.

As adults we do not need to teach children how to use the language, but we can be facilitators of the languages we want them to learn. In order to be a facilitator, you can follow the following strategies:

• Surround the child with the language or languages you want him or her to learn and opportunities to learn those languages. Remember that in order to learn a language the child needs to be exposed to that language at least 30% of the awaking hours.
• Let this be a natural experience where the child can explore and use all of his or her senses to learn like he or she does when learning the first language.
• Follow the child’s lead or interest. A child is usually more interested to participate and learn when the activity is something he or she wants to do. Watch what your child is doing and join him or her in the activity. Do what he or she is doing and add words to the activity.
• Create the need to use the language. Motivation is the number 1 component for learning any task. The child needs to have a reason to want to use the language.
• Label for the child his surroundings and describe what is going on while using the target language. Children and adults learn to understand first. Once understanding of the language is on its way comes the task of learning to express one self. Talking cannot happen without understanding first.
• Have fun! Learning is always easier when fun is involved because facilitates attention to the task and makes the child want to be involved in the activity. The more fun the child is having the longer he or she will stay on the task and the more opportunities, there will be for learning.
• Relax and take a break! Things do not always work as planned. Tomorrow will be another day full of opportunities for your child to learn.


  1. Just had a chance to read through your blog. Your story is fascinating. We are raising our boys bilingually. Thank you for the great information!

  2. Adriana:
    Thank you for your kind words! I am glad you find the information helpful. I also read your blog, and I love all the activity ideas you have. I will make a link to you blog so that people can go to it.