“Children’s brains are like sponges,” is practically a cliché when it comes to language learning.
Often I hear this kind of remark from adults who, struggling with trying to learn a new language, marvel at the ease with which young children seem to acquire them: “They just soak them up.”
The assumption seems to be that adults’ brains are no longer like sponges. They have hardened in some way and language must be drilled in to them with great difficulty.
What’s interesting to me is that when people talk about children’s brains soaking up languages like sponges, they seem to pay little attention to the other element that this metaphor implies.
How does a sponge get soaked?
It is immersed in water.
Similarly, if we look at the environment of these children who are soaking language up, we will see that they are immersed in the target language—not necessarily all the time, but generally for many hours.
Importantly, they are immersed in it in a way that they can understand it because they’re hearing it in the context of many understandable experiences.
This is known as comprehensible input.
People generally fail to ask what might happen if adults were immersed in a similar environment.
Think of how even a hard old sponge, after being dipped in water for a little while, softens and soaks it up.
Unfortunately, too often, adults are not even given the chance to be immersed in a environment comparable to what young children typically get when learning a new language.
As a consequence, we don’t see how much adult brains are capable of picking up a new language without effort.
I went halfway around the world to see a program that offers adults such an opportunity to pick up a new language like children because I couldn’t find anything like it anywhere else.
Students simply pick up Thai by watching and listening to teachers tell stories, make jokes, play games, and give demonstrations.
The teachers’ ample use of non-verbal communication like gestures and drawings makes the language understandable.
Students just listen and then automatically begin to speak.
Early on in the program, I heard one classmate remark on how much Thai he and other regular students were picking up without any effort.
“It really gets into your head,” he marveled after a class.
The sheer amount of repetition of language by the teachers, combined with the meaningful context of interesting stories and experiences, made it practically impossible not to pick up language.
Adult students who continue with the AUA program and the ALG approach can go on to very high levels of fluency in Thai, even approaching native-like abilities, all without study or practice.
Unfortunately, this kind of learning opportunity is quite rare.
It appears that adults who have picked up a language without effort usually have stumbled onto an environment of comprehensible input that’s similar to what children have.
An adult who sets out to pick up a language this way has to depend on luck for such an opportunity, or otherwise, take on the task of deliberately finding or creating such an environment.
There seems to be a negative cycle where the lack of opportunities to pick up language without study or effort leads to few adults doing so, which leads to people assuming that adults simply can’t do so, which leads to a lack of effort to create such opportunities for adults.
Ultimately, when talking about ease of learning and potential attainment, there has been too much focus on when we learn languages rather than how we learn them: the language learning environment we experience and our approach to it.
This has consequences for children as well as adults: there are too many cases where children don’t have an adequate environment to support learning a second language properly, yet people assume that their success is inevitable just because they’re children.
But more on that in another post.
Let’s create a positive cycle where more and more great opportunities to soak up new languages are available to people of all ages!