When it comes to languages, babies are so talented that it’s not even fair. They seem to just absorb whatever is being spoken around them—without flash cards, memory palaces or even spaced repetition! Not to mention that their accents are flawless. Sure, some of them slip up on a few sounds, but after a little practice, they blend right in with native speakers.
You might have noticed that it gets harder to learn as you get older. Grammar doesn’t soak in quite as effortlessly as it used to, and people aren’t as forgiving of your mistakes.
If you find yourself banging your head against the wall as you wrestle with the latest app, master the latest trick, search for the latest meet-up group or hire the latest virtual tutor…maybe you’re trying too hard. Maybe it’s time to learn a language like a child.
How? Let’s take a look.
Live in your language.
Kids pick up whatever they’re surrounded by, so immerse yourself in your target language as much as possible.
If you can, travel to a country that speaks it. Visit a small town; metropolitan areas often attract people who speak English as a second language, which would make it easy for you to fall back on English if you get flustered. However, in smaller areas, you’ll be forced to rely on your target language—after a few days in a French village, you’ll begin to pick up a handful of conversation-starters.
If you can’t pack up and move to a new country, then create an immersion experience right at home.
When I started to learn German, one of the most effective things that I did was to change my phone’s language in the settings. That way, when I opened Spotify, I saw “Alben” and “Künstler” instead of “Album” and “Artist.” When I booted up an iOS game, it loaded in Deutsch, and when I Googled something, I didn’t get “Results,” I got “Ergebnisse.”
Because your phone is so integral to your life, switching it to your target language will force you to learn key phrases (or else be forced to surrender your phone). It also streamlines the vocabulary into your daily life, which means it will be easier to memorize when you sit down for concentrated studying.
For more immersion, you can also subscribe to podcasts, look up musicians and join speaking groups. Although subliminal language learning has been debunked, surrounding yourself with your language will help you feel more comfortable in it.
Don’t get too hung up on grammar.
Have you talked to children lately? They are terrible at conjugation. “Yesterday I goed to the store.” “I eated a cookie.” They have no shame!
And don’t even get me started on their spelling mistakes. Trying to get a child to distinguish between they’re, there and their is nearly impossible (nearly as impossible as trying to get an adult to distinguish between they’re, there and their).
But you know what? Kids don’t mind. They do their best. If they forget a word, they use a different one. If they don’t know how to conjugate correctly, they do it incorrectly. They’re not overly concerned with pronunciation, and feel no shame when dropping letters and lisping all over the place.
Of course, grammar is important, but as adults we often let ourselves become paralyzed with the fear of being incorrect. You’re not sure whether “shin” is an Arabic sun letter or a moon letter, so instead of risking being wrong, you say nothing at all. If you can’t speak Italian as fast or as smoothly as a native speaker, you stare at your hands. You content yourself with squeaking by with a few Hindi words instead of stretching yourself to try new expressions.
What would happen if you embraced your mistakes? In the worst-case scenario, the person you’re speaking to corrects you, and you learn from it. In the best-case scenario, the person you’re speaking to corrects you, and you learn from it. Either way, you learn!
Native speakers are more sympathetic to your struggle than you think. And many times, they understand you even if it’s not perfect.
Talk to everyone, including strangers.
Do you know why you have to teach children about “stranger danger”? It’s because most children will naturally talk to anyone, all the time, about anything.
We lose that confidence as adults. You probably only speak your target language with a select handful of carefully curated people—your learning partner, for example, and your classmates, and maybe the cashier around the corner.
Push yourself! If you live in an immersion country, strike up conversations with everyone around you. Chat with a fellow customer in a grocery store. Drop in on a gallery opening. Hang out at a bar.
If you don’t live in an immersion country, then extend this to online—join some social media groups and start talking in your target language. Whether it’s in person or via a keyboard, just talk!
Read picture books.
Don’t be too proud to read elementary language materials. Sure, you might want to jump straight into a À la recherche du temps perdu after a week of learning French, but chances are, you’ll become frustrated and give up.
Instead, start small. You might not have to begin with a picture book, but look for elementary materials made for adults. Begin there. Read folktales. Maybe even watch an episode or two of a children’s program. These materials are often colorful, fun and made for people with short attention spans. They might stimulate you more than you think.
Force yourself to think in the language.
It’s one thing to speak or even write in your target language—but what about rethinking the way you think?
This is difficult. You might be wondering, what’s the point? If you’re trying to decide what to have for dinner, does it matter whether you think, What should I cook? or Ninahitaji kupika nini? After all, no one is around to hear it.
But forcing yourself to think in your target language will imprint it into your head, making it easier to speak out loud. It will start to flow more naturally. You might even dream in it!
This might seem like a headache at first, but if you’re immersing yourself in the language with websites, music and conversation partners, then this will soon be the most fluid thing in the world.
Learn from children.
We often focus on what we can teach children, but we have a lot to learn from them too, especially when it comes to picking up languages.
So today, challenge yourself to think like a child!
Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.