Learning languages is child’s play

Students using audio and computer aids to study

What is so tricky about learning another language?

LEARNING a second language beyond childhood is undoubtedly difficult. Now that we can move beyond this simple statement of fact, it’s worth asking why. More importantly, why is it that some people really struggle, and others find the task less onerous?

Children have an inbuilt ability to learn languages, often more than one at the same time. This is the reason that the term second language acquisition often refers to third or fourth language acquisition, as it is not unknown for a child to learn one language from their father, one from their mother and one at school with relative ease.

Learning multiple languages is particularly common amongst the children of recent immigrants to a country where the predominant language is not spoken by the parents. Though the parents may struggle for years to master the language or languages of their new country, their children will learn the new country’s languages along with the parents’ mother tongue at the same rate as a child just learning one language.

Theories abound as to why children have this incredible ability, but all linguists agree that they must acquire the principle tools of syntax, phonetics and a large vocabulary. Where the theorists differ is on how they acquire these capabilities with relatively little input.

Acquiring tongues

Regardless of the language, its perceived difficulty, and the number of languages being acquired (within reason), children the world over learn these skills at roughly the same pace and following the same pattern. At about six months a child’s cooing starts to form a babbling, and consonant sounds appear. At about one year understanding becomes apparent, with one-word statements – requests for food or a toy.

From 12 to 18 months these one-word utterances become more frequent, with the number of words in use increasing to about 50. At 18 to 24 months the child constructs two-word sentences of the ‘me want’ variety – nouns, adjectives and action words are used and there is a rough following of rules of syntax.




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