6 language lessons I learnt from my 2 year old.

Over the past 9 months I have been observing how my daughters language skills have been developing. Here are some things I have noticed that I think we could all apply to our own language learning.

My daughter spent a long time listening before attempting to speak.
She listened to everything me and my husband said for more than a year before she spoke. It then took her another 6 months to produce any recognizable sounds. Another six months to listen and play with a limited set of vocabulary (dada, dod (dog), more) and then it all started coming together around the age of 2. Imagine if we followed this same timescale with our language learning? What if we spent 1 year intently listening to movies, podcasts, video clips and native speakers having conversations in cafés etc., before we even started trying to make sounds? Do you think that after a year of listening to our target language every day when we come to speak, it would be easier ? We would certainly have a feel for the new language’s tones and rhythms. As we start to speak, sentences might fall into place a lot easier than if we hadn’t prepped for a year through listening.

She doesn’t need perfect grammar to be able to communicate.
I think the anti-grammar movement is finally starting to take hold in the language learning world. My observations of my daughter confirm to me that it’s a good direction to be going in. As Veda Upanishads said “It is not the language but the speaker that we want to understand.” She communicates everything she needs in basic sentences. She omits joining words, only uses the words of the utmost importance. (Every sentence needs a noun and a verb and that’s all she uses).

I’ve tracked the development of one particular sentence over time. I have never told her how to say it, she just learns more language surrounding the concept over time by listening to me and her Dad speaking.

Stage 1 : Me soowie (I want a smoothie)
Stage 2: Me soowie peez (I want a smoothie please)
Stage 3: Mummy, me smooie peez (Mummy, I want a smoothie please)
Stage 4: Mummy make smoovie peez (Mummy make me a smoothie please)
Stage 5: She hasn’t got there yet, but I’m guessing it’s going to be “Mummy can you make me a smoothie please?”

Over time I’ve noticed the more complex grammar coming into use. As she masters the basics her brain has the space to take in more advanced information.

She doesn’t let her lack of grammar knowledge or poor pronunciation get in the way of her communicating to me. She misses out the articles and modal verbs but I still know exactly whats she’s saying. She gives me simple instructions with little grammar. I understand her. We’ve communicated. The more she listens the more joining words she’ll learn.

So how can we apply this to our own language learning? Sure, you might not want to sound like a baby, but in many ways, when you are learning a language you are a baby. So embrace that thought. Think like a baby, use what you know and don’t be afraid of what you don’t. We need a shift in thinking about language. Let’s not be so hard on ourselves and remember that we are just babies in this big new world of our target language.

Repetition, repetition, repetition!
Among the countless readings of Pippi Longstocking and Peepo are the spoken phrases she hears me say every day. It’s these that stick, (in some cases rather unfortunately). I guess not only have I learnt that repetition is crucial for language acquisition but also maybe I should re-think how I speak to my dog!

My dog barks. A lot. Usually at other dogs going by, but sometimes at nothing. He’ll see a leaf falling and bark at that, maybe a car three blocks down pulls out of a drive, he’ll bark at that too. Sometimes I put my teacup down a bit heavily on the kitchen table. He’ll think someone’s at the door and bark at that too. So I’m constantly saying “Shush Frank, there’s nobody there.” The other day I got a little taste of my own medicine.  I asked my daughter to clear up her crayons and mega bloks. She looked up at me, shook her finger and said “Shush Mummy, there’s nobody there!”

She learnt another great patronising expression whilst watching movies on my iphone. Whenever I get a text message I ask her to hand me the phone. She asks “What doing Mummy”, and I respond with “I’m just checking something.” The other day I caught her shoving handfuls of raisins into her mouth at once. Shocked, I exclaimed “Hester! What are you doing?”  She looked down her nose at me, gave me a “wait” hand gesture and said “I’m just checking something Mummy!”

I am fascinated by how this aspect of her language acquisition emulates the spaced repetition methods used by certain anguage programs.  I wasn’t saying the phrase twenty times a day. Once or twice a day at most, for several months. Some days I wouldn’t say it at all, other days I might say it 5 times. I think this natural way of speaking is a factor in how babies memorise. Her brain isn’t being crammed with too much information (not like a classic flash card revision session) but she is being regularly reminded of her new vocabulary. Just like the spaced repetition methods used by Pimsleur in his language programs or in apps such as Anki. (I don’t recommend Anki by the way as its clunky (difficult to use) I’m currently using an app called MosaLingua and I also quite like Quizlet)

I think we can safely say that spaced repetition (which is scientifically proven to work) is actually quite a natural way our children acquire language. So you can stop cramming vocabulary in crazy revision sessions. Download a spaced repetition app, choose a few phrases to learn and relax while the app does the work for you!

She has no fear
My daughter is an outgoing little soul, she’s happy to go up to random people in the street and say “What doing man?” She’s lucky because her immense cuteness excuses her from her poorly constructed and over zealous conversation starters. I know it would be kind of weird for a grown adult to go up to a random person in the street and say “What doing man?” But take that approach and bring it into a more practical setting. Don’t be afraid, for example, to find a language partner or teacher on Skype. Yes it’s daunting, but I promise you after your first session of actually communicating with a native speaker you’ll be glad you did it!

Find a teacher who is patient and allows you to make mistakes. Doesn’t bombard you with grammar and abstract concepts. Gives you a comfortable environment to work in and lets you work at your own pace using resources that mean something to you. You’ll soon find the stress of speaking falls away and your fluency improves. There are some great teachers on italki.com who specialise in one-on-one conversation and are great at makgin you feel at ease in this sometimes unfamiliar environment.

Singing really does help build vocabulary
My daughter can speak in 5 word sentences, sometimes more and often less. But she can sing whole verses of songs. She can sing all the words to Twinkle twinkle, I’m a little tea pot and Row your boat, that’s like 20 words in a row. Proof to me that the rhythm, tone and repetition involved in singing is certainly helpful in memorising and learning language. My daughter then takes what she learnt from the song and applies it to real life. She loves pointing to stars in the night sky and says “Ook mummy, stars!” and any story book that talks about stars and moons is also a great hit!

She only learns about what interests her
My daughter doesn’t talk about the news, or politics, she talks about food, sleep and play. These are the things that are relevant and important to her. We can’t expect her to be able to talk about anything more complicated because she’s not interested in these things and more importantly she’s not ready to talk about them.

Like Stephen Krashen’s Natural Order hypothesis we not only acquire grammar in a certain order but we also acquire concepts in a certain order. This can change slightly according to the individuals interests. However there is a specific order that we learn things in. Take a look at the abilities of different level learners as marked out by the Council of Europe to see the order in which we learn things.

https://www.englishclub.com/esl-exams/levels-cef.htm

At beginner level we can only talk about things that are most important to us like work, family, and food. As we progress, we start to  talk about things that are less immediate to us such as friends, health and travel. Once we are more advanced we can start talking about opinion, ideas and other abstract concepts.

What I took from this is to not worry too much when I can’t talk about an abstract concept or idea. I need to remember the level I’m at and understand that I don’t have the capacity to talk about more. But, it will come, in time just as with my daughter.

In conclusion there isn’t much my daughter taught me that isn’t already being talked about by modern linguists. But it’s been interesting to see it in action. To see Krashen’s theories coming to life in my 2 years old. To actually experience someone who’s not held back by confidence issues. Or who’s creative thinking isn’t plugged up from years of mind numbing conforming to outdated education theories. Ultimately I have learnt that it’s really important to think like a baby when learning a language; to listen/receive language as much as, and if not more than we produce/speak it. Be brave and don’t worry about our mistakes. Two years olds are the best at learning language, so why not copy the best!


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