I was interested to come across a recent post by Donovan Nagel on The Mezzofanti Guild blog titled “How To Learn Languages Like A Child (Yes It Is Possible)“.
I think he’s on the right track in a lot of ways: for example, he says that adults can and should pick up grammar like children do, acquiring it through comprehensible input without explicit instruction.
He also writes that “[t]raditional language study and reading can actually get in the way of learning”, and suggests focusing on reading after getting attuned to the spoken language—a point I think is overlooked even by many proponents of “natural” or “learn like a child” approaches.
However, I think he’s also made the same kind of error that I’ve seen many other people make when they look at children’s language learning and try to apply it to adults.
This mistake is to observe something we can see children doing, and advocate that adults do it too, but interpreting it in a way that ignores what the child’s “inner game” is.
In this case, it’s children’s mimicry of language they hear, which is often cited to support the adult practice of “listen and repeat” when the two are actually very different things.
How the child’s mind approaches and experiences what they’re doing can be totally different from what adults will typically bring when they attempt to do what appears to them to be the same task.
Listening and repeating not what it seems
Nagel has been observing his son’s language acquisition and writes that he’s reached a level where he’s repeating everything that’s said to him, so he tries an experiment based on these observations:
I wanted to take a few languages with sounds that are very new to me and see how well I can listen and repeat whole chunks without studying anything.
No reading text or transcriptions either if I can help it. Just exposure and repetition of the patterns I hear.
In essence: doing what my son is doing with English.
He shares two examples of himself listening to and repeating samples of Greek, a language he has studied, and Thai, a language he is totally unfamiliar with.
While this might appear on the surface to be like the language mimicry that his son and many children do, I would say that it’s very different in two critical ways:
1. The child has had many hours of experience listening to the language
Children who listen and repeat often have a great deal of experience with the language behind it—hundreds or even thousands of hours of listening.
In contrast, Nagel, like many adult learners, is trying to repeat a language without having any experience with it.
Having many hours of listening experience gives the child a much clearer sense of the language’s sound system and patterns, helping them to hear it accurately, and eventually speak accurately as well.
With the Thai example, where Nagel is starting off cold, his pronunciation sounds quite different from the speaker he is imitating (that’s not to say he’s claiming otherwise—he notes himself the process is “prone to mistakes in the beginning”).
Most notably he leaves the final “k” consonant off one of the words (จาก; final stops in Thai are unreleased, as with many Asian languages, which can make them difficult for beginners from other linguistic backgrounds to hear).
This is likely a consequence of trying to repeat the language without the experience listening to it to discern the sounds properly.
2. The child’s mimicry isn’t forced or very conscious of the language
The young child who repeats may make a lot of mistakes for many reasons.
They’re still going through a lot of physiological development, and may not have developed the ability to articulate or coordinate the production of many sounds.
They may mishear or not be able to repeat long strings of syllables back.
And in some cases, they are repeating without much experience with the language they’re imitating, so they can’t yet discern many of its sounds.
However in all of these cases, they’re repeating in a way that is unforced, unself-conscious, and largely unconscious of the language itself.
In contrast, adults listening and repeating are often consciously trying to imitate, and doing it self-consciously with a focus on the language and a concern about getting it right.
Because they are often doing this conscious repeating with little experience with the new language, while they try to approximate what they hear, they end up borrowing sounds from their first language.
Nagel touches on this when he writes:
At the end of the day, natural language learning is 100% mimicry of sound patterns.
We hear sounds constantly and we repeat those sounds to the best of our ability. It happens often enough (thousands and thousands of times) that it sticks.
In the case of a young child like my son or an adult learning a language with unusual sounds, you’re limited in what you repeat by the sounds you already know.
The difference is that young children picking up a new language are not consciously doing things like comparing it to their first language when speaking or imitating.
Even if their production is incorrect at first, it will eventually converge on the sounds of the language that they’ve internalized, or will internalize through further experience.
Being largely unconscious of the language allows them to develop a sense of the sounds of the new language without imposing upon it their previous knowledge like the sounds of another language they know.
Adults, on the other hand, in their conscious efforts to listen and speak, often interfere with this process and end up fixating on incorrect sounds.
In using them repeatedly, these sounds “stick” and they fail to acquire the sound system of the new language fully.
Confusing effects with causes
To be clear, I’m not saying that children’s mimicry is necessary to, or driving their language acquisition.
What I’m emphasizing is how the child’s largely unconscious mimicry is very different mentally from the highly conscious kind that adults often attempt.
The mimicry we see a lot of in children seems to be an effect of language acquisition rather than the cause.
It generally comes after getting a lot of understandable experience with language, or comprehensible input.
(As a friend put it: “So they’re not learning because they’re repeating—they’re repeating because they’ve been learning.”)
Also, there seems to be wide variation between how much children mimic, with some doing it a lot and others perhaps not doing it at all.
But because this mimicry is one of the most highly visible things that we see children learning language do, the adult tendency is to focus on this outward behaviour and impose upon it adult notions like conscious study and practice, while ignoring how the child is actually approaching it and all the experience with language that’s behind it.
A double-edged sword
While we should put to rest the notion that the adult’s listening and repeating is anything like the child’s unforced and largely unconscious mimicry, this kind of conscious practice can help one improve in many respects when it’s done carefully and diligently.
For example, Nagel writes about spending three months working on his pronunciation of Arabic at the very beginning of his learning with the goal of sounding like a native speaker.
I have little doubt that if he does the same amount of work with Thai, listening and repeating with the same goal and immersing himself in the language, he will be able to speak Thai with very good pronunciation.
While he made mistakes with Thai as I pointed out, he can consciously correct and overcome these initial errors, especially being an experienced language learner.
However, I doubt that this kind of approach of conscious practice is ideal for the average adult language learner to follow, for two connected reasons:
1. It’s too much work for most people
This conscious practice and correction of language takes a level of dedicated work and motivation that I suspect most adults learning languages won’t be able to muster.
Perhaps in some cases we could rightfully accuse them of being lazy, but for many I think it’s a matter of having many other things to do and thus having limited time and energy to dedicate to doing this practice properly.
2. It’s prone to error
While this conscious practice can help learners improve their pronunciation, it can also lead to errors being ingrained, especially if it’s not done with a great deal of care.
A problem of consciousness in language learning is that it can cause one to fixate on incorrect ideas about the language such as how to pronounce a certain sound, whereas with enough of the right input the brain could unconsciously develop a correct sense of the language.
In this way I think this adult practice of conscious listening and repeating can be a double-edged sword.
The learner may get some things right, but by listening to and repeating other things wrong, these errors become further entrenched.
“Over time, these repetitive sound patterns get ingrained into your mind,” Nagel writes. “Patterns become habitual” (emphasis his).
Unfortunately, these repetitive sound patterns can include the learners’ own mistakes and mishearings.
When done without a foundation of listening, hearing ourselves pronounce sounds incorrectly can not only give us incorrect input and practice, but also affect our ability to hear the sounds correctly, keeping us from hearing these distinctions when listening, causing us to further repeat them incorrectly.
For example, a Korean learner might through lots of listening and repeating end up quite good in terms of aspects like prosody and intonation, which can be easier to hear and imitate, but end up totally unable to distinguish between consonants (like ㅅ and ㅆ) that are extremely subtle in their differences to native English speakers.
A more truly childlike approach
I think there is a better way that will be more practical for most adult language learners if the opportunities are developed for it, and is actually much closer to children’s language learning.
For adults to truly imitate the kind of listening and repeating a child does, they need to get a lot of understandable experience with a new language without study or consciously trying to speak it, instead, only producing language that comes to mind without effort.
But it seems that there are almost no programs anywhere that provide such opportunities to just pick up a language through comprehensible input, without putting a conscious focus on it through things like study, translation, reading, or speaking practice.
This approach is meant give adults the same kind of environment and approach of young children learning languages, with the goal of having them reach the same levels of ability that children routinely reach just as effortlessly.
I attended AUA and followed the ALG approach of just watching, listening, and gaining understanding of the language, and I gradually began to speak more and more Thai without trying as it became clear and understandable to me through many hours of listening.
Students like me who attended the classes and focused on listening first without trying to speak or consciously compare Thai with our first language found that we could start to produce clear Thai automatically, without practice, and sound very much like native speakers of Thai, even though we started learning well into adulthood.
My current experience with Khmer
I am now acquiring the Khmer language in a similar way, by focusing on listening to the language and not consciously trying to speak, instead letting speaking emerge on its own as a result of listening.
Unfortunately, a school that was started to teach Khmer through the ALG approach closed down a couple of years ago, leaving me on my own to find ways to pick up the language without study or practice.
What I’ve been doing is meeting with a Khmer tutor regularly and having conversations with him where I speak English and he speaks Khmer, using things like pictures, gestures, and drawings to make it understandable—a form of multilingual communication known in ALG as Crosstalk.
I also listen to audio recordings of my tutor and other Khmer recordings where I can understand a lot of what I’m hearing, often with the help of pictures and drawings.
I don’t push myself to speak in Khmer, but mostly let words come out when they come to mind without effort.
Recently, I’ve been finding myself repeating some of what I hear my tutor say in Khmer and other things I hear, but this kind of mimicking seems to happen in a mostly automatic and unself-conscious way.
Unforced, and based on a foundation of listening, to me this seems much more like the kind of mimicking we observe children sometimes do in learning their first or second language.
Much of this may be broken with imperfect pronunciation right now, but I trust that having internalized the language through listening, like the child learner, my speaking will automatically become more and more fluent and accurate.
One sign of this is when I say something and it doesn’t come out right, I already have a sense of what was wrong and how it should sound without the need to be corrected.
As with my experience with Thai, by having the sounds established through listening without trying to filter it through my previous knowledge of languages, I am developing a clear mental image that my speaking will converge on automatically, without practice or correction.
With enough time and input, it may become very close or even practically identical to that of a native Khmer speaker.
The future of language learning
I think that this kind of approach of acquiring a language though listening and understanding and gradually speaking more and more is far more practical and likely to succeed for the average adult than consciously practicing listening and repeating.
What we need though is for adult learners to be able to get the kind of experience with new languages that children routinely get.
There need to be abundant opportunities for adults to pick up languages through hearing the language in the context of really interesting experiences and other content.
These experiences with new languages should be so compelling that adult learners forget that they are learning a language.
Instead, they can be absorbed in the experiences, much as children are absorbed in their play, yet also be absorbing the language all the while anyway.
Although they might look similar on the surface, the mimicry we observe of some children as they learn a language is very different from the listening and repeating practiced by many adult language learners.
The child’s mimicry is unforced, largely unconscious of the language itself, and often based on many hours of experience listening to the language.
In contrast, the adult’s practice is often forced, self-conscious, highly conscious of the language, and done without the same foundation of listening experience.
This adult ability to consciously practice language is a double-edged sword: if done very carefully it can help one improve one’s pronunciation and sound more native-like, but it can also lead to mistakes that become entrenched, for example, by borrowing sounds from one’s first language and practicing these errors.
Instead of painstaking practice, a more truly childlike approach would be to give adults abundant opportunities for compelling comprehensible input through which they can pick up languages implicitly, building a clear mental image of how they sound and gradually speaking more and more based on this.
This opportunities may produce even better results without conscious effort, allowing us as adults to pick up languages while having fun and learning and doing many other things.