Why you can never learn a foreign language the way you have learnt your mother tongue

by Sarah Collins

If you have ever mustered enough energy and motivation to try to take up a new language, (who hasn't right?) sooner or later you must have stumbled upon mysterious "natural way" courses. Supposedly extremely efficient, often advertised and promoted by prominent figures and masterminds in the field of language learning and teaching and almost always horrendously expensive, such courses have nevertheless become very popular among students who fell prey to the promise of learning a language just as easily and effortlessly as children do. Yes indeed - you are going to be learning like a child.

Because, let's face it: undeniably true, children do seem to have a peculiar gift for learning languages, or, at the very least, their native language. This can be attributed to a variety of different reasons, yet in the end produces the same outcome - no child has ever failed to reach total and perfect mastery in his or her mother tongue. Conversely, how many of us ended up being at least advanced in the second language of our choosing? How many of us actually stuck with the course?

It is not surprising then that for many years the researchers have been trying to pinpoint what exactly makes children learn languages so easily. The "natural" courses are the result of such research, their task to mimic the way children learn the mother tongue and recreate it, allowing the adult learners to learn their second language in the exactly same way. Will it be child-like? Certainly. Will it be fun and engaging? Most probably. Will it actually work? No.

The Blank Card feature

Usually, when asked why they cannot learn a language as efficiently as small children, adult learners unanimously say: because we are not children. Well, that's kind of obvious, isn't it? After all, as adults we are different: we are more developed and we already exhibit a variety of abilities that children haven't yet acquired: we can speak freely, we know how to read and we are capable of writing. However, after a deeper consideration, such reasoning turns out to be flawed. If any, the fact that we can perform these actions, should only have a beneficial influence on our language studies. Honestly, can you imagine why being able to read would mean you are a less skilled language learner? Clearly, there has to be something else to it.

In fact however, the adult learners indeed posses a particular, often omitted feature that decreases their chances of mastering a second language, namely the mother tongue (MT). Surprising as it might sound, if you think about it, while learning a new language we adults tend to constantly compare the newly acquired information of an second language (SL) with our already existing knowledge of MT. Such action is natural and in certain cases beneficial, especially if the languages correlate and overlap strongly, but ultimately leads to many problems and difficulties when we struggle greatly to understand and remember that in our MT a particular word is masculine while in the SL of our choosing it is considered feminine. Conversely, a small child never faces such problems and is just like a blank card, accepting the MT unconditionally simply because it doesn't have any other language to compare it to. Not restrained by any previous knowledge which would slow the language process, a child accepts the language as it is, therefore acquiring it quickly and efficiently. After all, ignorance is a bliss!

Abstract thinking problem

Just as in the case of having a fully developed language at our disposal, being able to visualize and think about abstract ideas and notions might be both beneficial as well as detrimental to our language learning. True, it is great to be able to differentiate between grammar aspects, parts of speech and syntax, but once taught to do so we will be stuck with this ability for the rest of our lives, trying to, and often failing to view the SL as consisting of similar grammar aspects as our MT. On the other hand, a child, not yet spoiled by abstract thinking, does not bother with differentiating between nouns, verbs and adjectives, and expects every single word to relate to an object. Given the 100% success rate of acquiring a language, doing so has to be a valid language learning strategy, but, unfortunately, it is a tactic we adults will never be able to mimic as a result of our overdependence on abstract notions like grammar.

Aims and goals discrepancies

Finally, we adults can never learn the language like children do since from the beginning we have a completely different set of goals and aims for it. Actually - the very fact that we DO have any goals differentiates us from children. If you think about it, a child does not really have a conscious reason for learning a language, it just does it as a result of being immersed within and passively exposed to it. In addition to that, it takes many months before a child finally begins to speak. Neither of these apply to the adult learners. After all, we always have a goal while starting an SL journey. In certain cases it might be important: increasing our chances on the job market or being able to communicate freely and easily on a plane and later during our travels all around the world. In other cases it might be trivial, like simply feeling satisfied or getting a chance to talk to that nice Italian girl we met during our travels, liked so much but failed to understand. Regardless, we adults always have a goal and consequently, we want to speak from the very beginning and would never want to undergo what Krashen had referred to as "the silent period", during which, just like small children in their MT - we do not talk but only listen.

Taking into consideration all those aspects, it becomes clear that learning an SL the way children acquire their MT is simply impossible. True, certain aspects, like relying on listening should, and in fact are mimicked by a variety of language courses. However, each and every claim that you will learn a language just as easily and effortlessly as the children do should always be taken with a pinch of salt.

About the writer

Sarah Collins combines her love of travel and languages with work at iwantthatflight.com.au. She has travelled extensively, visited many countries and loves sharing her tips with readers.

Aritcles by Tom Thompson


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