3 things toddlers can teach us about learning a language

learning a language

Seeing your child acquire new skills is an eye-opening experience. One of the most interesting aspects for someone who grew up with one language (and a dialect) is to see how our son learns two languages so different from each other. Here are 3 things I’ve learned by watching our now 18-month-old son learn both of his mother tongues:

  1. Mistakes are your best friend

People often think that a young child that grows up with two or more languages spoken at home will learn those languages automatically and with ease. But that’s not true. You need to make a huge effort as parents, and the child will need to make a huge effort as well. The amazing thing about little kids is that they aren’t afraid of making mistakes. If they don’t pronounce a word correctly or don’t know a sentence structure perfectly yet, they just practice until they do, making a myriad of mistakes on their way. If you’re very self-conscious about making mistakes, don’t be! You’ll learn a language much faster if you’re not afraid of making mistakes. Here are two really funny mistakes I made learning Mandarin Chinese.

  1. Practice makes perfect

Our son practices new sentence structures day in day out. If he wants to practice a Chinese sentence structure, he’ll switch to only speaking Chinese for a few days until he gets the hang of it. When he wants to practice a new German sentence structure, he’ll make sure to be around me as much as possible to practice it. He’s not afraid of making mistakes. He’ll just repeat new phrases or sentence structures until he masters them.

  1. Conversation is key

Toddlers learn and memorize fast by having conversations. These days, our son even has conversations with himself to make sure he’ll perfect his conversation skills. It’s common to hear him say things like “Would you like to drink water? Yes, please” or “Let’s go for a walk. Okay”, usually telling us exactly what he expects us to do. Conversations help tremendously in learning a language well, and if you aren’t able to or don’t have the finances to afford a language partner, be your own conversation partner. As odd as that might sound, it will make you feel much more at ease using the language on ground.

What have your children taught you about learning a language?

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About

Hi, I'm Ruth, welcome to China Elevator Stories! I have been living in Kunming and Shenzhen in the past and am now staying in Northeast China with my Chinese husband and our baby and toddler son. Join us on our journey bridging worlds!

15 comments

  1. It sounds like your son has excellent language skills. Only eighteen months, and speaking so well in two languages … Wow! I’ve read that at some point centers in the brain responsible for learning a language stop growing rapidly and language acquisition becomes more difficult. But the three points you make are also very important. Adults are embarrassed when they make mistakes, so they’re afraid to try. We tend to think we should be able to learn new words and structure without practicing more than a few times. And we’re afraid we’ll be considered crazy if we talk to ourselves. I remember how my second daughter used to babble for hours in her crib when she was only a few months old. Now she loves language and literature, and she’s a lawyer.

  2. As Nicki says, it sounds like he’s doing really well! It’s lovely to hear the way which he practices.
    I look forward to hearing whether our son will do the same.

  3. That’s wonderful! Just curious though, what about English? I would be concerned for a future citizen of the world growing up without native level English when, if you teach him, he’ll be able to speak it fluently. If he just learns it in school, he won’t have as much of an advantage.

    • I’m concerned he will mix up English with German if he only learns both languages from me (and both would be minority languages here), so we won’t introduce English until kindergarten, which is when Chinese kids start to learn it. We’ll still have time to practice English then. I learned English only after I was 8 years old, I’m not worried he won’t learn it well enough.

  4. Cat

    Interesting post – as an English speaker who only started seriously learning a second language (Chinese) in their mid/late 20s I definitely look at kids who grow up speaking multiple languages with a great deal of envy!

    I think it is interesting that you are waiting to teach your son English until he is in Kindergarten – it is easy to imagine a child going between two languages (particularly if they are the native languages of each of their parents) but harder to imagine how you would introduce a third language.

    If my Chinese fiance (who speaks Spanish, Chinese and English) and I have kids I would want them to learn at least Chinese and English but it would be awesome if he could somehow also pass on Spanish to them too!

    • Yes, it’s quite fascinating to see how they learn a language, but there’s a lot of participation and effort required on their part too, so it’s not as easy to them as it sounds to us. I know of many families who have introduced a third language from the very beginning, but since I’m the only one who speaks German with our son here, I wouldn’t have wanted to sacrifice the minority language for it.

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