Wonder how children learn so darn quick?
Well, the answer is easier than you might think.
There are many contributing factors to a child’s almost miraculous ability to soak up information that passes their way (and some information which we can only wonder at its source). To understand it, at least in part, we need to have a look at the way we, as fully fledged adults, try to learn. First, take a look at the list below (by no means an exhaustive list) and mentally cross off which aspect of life is not of concern to you…
4. Limited holiday time
6. Appearance to others
Perhaps you could eliminate maybe 1 or 2 of these which don’t apply to you…However, more than likely you couldn’t mark any of these at all off your list.
Why is this significant?
Because it changes the way we do many things; including learn.
Obviously as we start to work, get involved with significant others, and take the responsibility (perceived or otherwise) of being an adult we:
1. Lose a lot of time to a continually demanding schedule
2. Become burdened (self imposed or otherwise) with responsibilities which, translates into worry.
3. Start to solidify the rules which govern our lives as adults (a process that starts very early on in our development).
This is the glorious time of adulthood; a time when there are usually never enough hours in the day, never enough money in the bank and always too much stress and too many worries to count. The way we perceive our general life at this stage is not all that flexible.
Life as a child is almost the exact mirror opposite; a time where the day goes too slow, responsibility stops at taking out the garbage, and the rules which will be used in adulthood are still being figured out. The way children perceive their general life at this stage is very flexible.
So, where does that leave us? It seems that everyone is destined to inherit a crazy schedule, a goliath sized burden of responsibility and, as the saying goes “be set in our ways.” When applying this assumption to learning, be it a language or otherwise, it appears that as adults we must accept that, “It’s just going to be harder to learn for us”.
Well, listen up, because I have a strategy which I know can work for anyone. It is easy to use and will help you recapture the unique talent of the information sponge!!
For starters, let’s be realistic. Our schedules are going to be hectic. This, as unfortunate as it is, probably won’t change. Our responsibilities aren’t likely to lessen either just because we are starting to learn a language. In many cases, the additional pressure of the responsibility learning a language (or anything for that matter) brings with it can heighten stress and worry. More importantly, because we have such limited time to commit to our new responsibility we can often feel stressed about learning and worry about our performance while doing so. As adults, we often berate ourselves for not trying hard enough, for not achieving a certain level of competency and for being innately NOT good at something.
Welcome to number one of the keys small children unwittingly use when they learn.
THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT
Ask yourself this question: “When was the last time you heard a small child express worry or feelings of stress about learning something?”
Yet, I bet you can think of several, if not many, times when you or someone around you has done exactly that. Don’t worry there is an easy answer to this problem…
Learning a language is a challenging task, no mistake, BUT stressing and worrying about something that should be fun DOES NOT improve your ability to perform. What it does do is reduce the enjoyment of your experience and make it less likely that you will continue to undertake learning the language. And even if you do manage to continue, you will be miserable and probably not very proficient.
Ask yourself this question: “In my experience, what have I learned the fastest?”
My personal answer to this question is: “The things I like doing the most”.
Language is something to be enjoyed. Your perception of the task is ESSENTIAL in achieving a level you can be happy with; be it conversational or fully fluent.
Learning a language should be like taking a walk down a country lane. As we venture further we get to experience more, we become aware of how different parts of the landscape relate to each other and we might even meet some very interesting people who are not only fun to talk with but, as experienced locals, can tell us more about our surroundings than we can hope to learn by ourselves.
Start looking at the adventure of learning a language AS an enjoyable adventure.
To help you shift your perspective, think about a child who plays video games. She plays for the fun of it and because she plays, her skill level becomes higher and she has more fun and can take on the more difficult parts of the game. At first, she isn’t really sure of the rules but by playing she absorbs the rules without necessarily paying attention to them.
This brings us to perhaps the most important part of the first step in language learning and let me start with an observation;
Over the course of teaching English to hundreds and hundreds of Japanese people, I was lucky enough to be an observer of different learning styles as well as an active participant in how people learn. During almost every lesson I observed two types of learners. The rule bound learner and the non-rule bound learner. There is one fundamental symptom which can be observed for each of these types of learners. Usually a rule bound learner will be quiet, answering a question when asked but only after a lengthy amount of internal deliberation searching for the most perfect way to answer. A non-rule bound learner is usually someone who offers information, asks questions and blurts out less than perfectly structured sentences. In other words, a non-rule bound learner uses what they know while a rule bound learner tries to know perfectly what they want to use.
It isn’t hard to guess which type of learner makes the most consistent progress, right?
As you start to learn a language… DISREGARD THE RULES.
Now, by this I don’t mean ALL the rules.
Let’s go back to the child with the video game for clarification of my potentially unpopular advice.
It would be quite a task to find a child who, before even loading the game, goes to great lengths of mental preparation for the best possible course of action when the game is finally loaded. The child won’t spend time mapping out the most perfect way to tackle the challenges the game is going to throw their way; nor will they study every rule in the manual before attempting to play. Usually, a child will blast through the manual gleaning only the most fundamental rules; enough to get them started. Then, they turn on the machine, load the game and figure the rest out. WHEN it is necessary, they go back to the manual and get some finer points of play to build on their ability level. Now perhaps this has a lot to do with eagerness to just play the game (which is also applicable to any type of learner) as opposed to any active thought about the best way to learn, but it beautifully highlights the next point I want to introduce…
USAGE IS KING
The reason children have such a steep learning curve is because they ‘get their hands dirty’. They play, and play AND play. They are assisted by some very basic rules but through mistake after mistake AFTER mistake they learn. So, before you try and attempt to learn the complexities and finer points of grammar, do yourself a favor - blast through the manual gleaning only the most fundamental rules; enough to get you started. Then, turn on the machine, load the game and figure the rest out. WHEN it is necessary, go back to the manual and get some finer points of play to build on your ability level.
Oh, and do one other thing:
Enjoy the knowledge you get from making the mistakes you WILL make.
(If it makes you feel better, use the term ‘learning experience’)
People are inherently afraid of making mistakes. The reason has to do with how we believe others see us (number 6 in the aspect of life table at the start of this article). I have been guilty of this many times but there is a simple way to overcome this. I simply think about something which although very common sense, escapes the attention of a lot of language learners:
Imagine a non-Native English speaker who has a less than perfect ability with English. Sometimes, when they speak their sentence structure is poor, their pronunciation maybe a little strange and sometimes they may use inappropriate words which are out of context.
Do I think they are stupid?
Of course not
Do I think they look foolish?
Do I cheer for them every time for making a great effort?
Most people, when you speak your new language to them, will do the following:
1. Appreciate you trying to communicate in their language
2. Praise you for your skillful use of the language (true or not)
3. Understand that you are learning and cheer for your success
Now, with this in mind, “Is it especially hard to try out your language skills?”
NO!! Sure it might be uncomfortable at first but hey, this isn’t your mother tongue!!!
Go back to the video game playing child one more time. Wrapped up in the game, her desire to do better and the overall enjoyment the game is giving her keeps her striving for more, “Do you think she is paying much attention to any negative people around her (or anyone for that matter!)?”
She is enjoying every last second and becoming proficient at the same time. Please remember this. It will help you through many embarrassing moments and times of uncertainty.
So if you are to take anything away from what I have written let it be this:
WHEN LEARNING ANYTHING - BE MORE LIKE A CHILD
Sam Hazell – www.englishtreejapan.com
About The Author
Sam Hazell has been living in Japan for the last 6 years and has acrued countless hours teaching Japanese students of English. He now part owns a company providing English tuition to Japanese, a free staff placement service for people looking for work in Japan and an online resource for foreigners in Japan looking for anything from English assistance to a slice of humour about Japanese life. To see more on Japan, from Japanese learning to shopping in Japan, visit http://www.englishtreejapan.com.
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