Can adults acquire a language the same way as children?

Have you ever wondered why most of the language lessons for adults are based on learning grammar? Couldn’t adults learn (or acquire) a language in a more natural way, like children?

When adults learn a new language, they usually try to find their way through a myriad of grammar rules and patterns because most of them would sign up for traditional language lessons. Some of them drop out of language lessons because it is too conceptional, too time consuming and out of touch with reality.

Children and adults have of course important cognitive and developmental differences, but this does not imply that language should be presented to adults as a rigid set of rules and patterns which are essential to master, preferably to a very high level of fluency before even attempting to speak it… – Adults tend to raise the bar unrealistically high when it comes to learning additional languages…

English: illustration from Leech's comic latin...

English: illustration from Leech’s comic latin grammar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know by my own experience, that we can acquire a language in a very child-like way. I acquired Swiss-German and Dutch in my 20ies and late 30ies, the same way I acquired German and Italian as a child: by listening and trying to imitate what was said.

I acquired Dutch alongside my son (who was then 2.5 years old), by repeating short sentences, singing songs with him, talking – and making many mistakes.

Of course, I had patterns and knowledge of other languages’ grammar and rules that made the acquisition process more systematic: for example I would compare the use of adjectives to similar languages I already had in my repertoire. And the ability to read helped me to understand the phonetic rules on another cognitive level than a child that doesn’t read yet. The whole acquisition process took place in a spontaneous way, which means that I would acquire the vocabulary of what I read and spoke about with people. I would copy the way people greet each other, what one says when leaving. I studied the folders at the supermarket and offices, read all the posters, signs and and children books, trying to figure out what the words meant, how they would possibly be pronounced.  Swiss-German, is not a written language. One can only find the occasionally written sentence on posters and adverts, but for the rest, if you want to learn Swiss-German, you need to focus on understanding the speech. For both languages, Swiss-German and Dutch, I heavily relied on songs,  TV and radio.

There is one aspect that plays a major role in language acquisition “the children’s way”, and that is the comprehensible input. If we can not make sense of what is said, because we don’t understand the context, we can’t acquire the language. Have  a look at Prof. Stephen Krashen’s video about this:

Adults can acquire languages like children if they focus on comprehensible input, on contexts they need and are interested in. In addition they have the time and the courage to make mistakes are surely necessary to achieve good results.

For me, personally, a merely grammar based approach to learning a language has proven to be very ineffective and discouraging. Even when learning dead languages like Latin, Old Provencal and Old French, what worked for me was to understand and like (!) the context of the text, and to make sense of the rules that came with learning these languages. 

I am a linguist, a philologist to be precise, and I teach languages since more than 30 years, to adults and teenagers. I have never had any problem of making someone speak, utter words, understand words and concepts, because I used the approach Kashen mentions. I teach privately which means that I can choose how and with what tools I teach the languages (German, Italian and French): I only choose tools that are interesting for my students, that they can understand and put in relation with what they know in the other languages they already speak.

Getting through the process of acquiring and learning multiple languages myself, learning about the language acquisition and learning process on a cognitive and neurological level, but also on a phonetic level (how to pronounce certain sounds), makes me focus on the speaking, on the communication first.

My language students choose the topics of our lessons and they discover grammar by reading, talking, writing about topics they like and need to become fluent in.

A way one can acquire a language as an adult is explained in this inspiring video:

At the moment (2020) I am trying to acquire Korean by watching Netflix series and exploring the language education feature on Netflix. I also try to understand the signs with the help of some apps and youtube videos. I have not the opportunity to live in Korea and enjoy full immersion in the language, which certainly would accelerate the language acquisition and learning process, but by merely listening to the language on a regular basis (almost every day approx. 1 hour), I hope to get some results within a year (or two). 

– How do you managed to speak all your languages?

Related posts:

Language Acquisition and Language Learning

4 Comments

  1. Very interesting, Ute. Forty years ago I had the privilege to spend a year with the Swiss linguist Max Mangold, who recommended a natural acquisition process based on many hours of radio listening. I think he got the idea from Paul Schmidt, because he often mentioned “Hitler’s interpreter” in these discussions and said that this man had also acquired a number of languages this way. My only attempt to follow his advice came about two decades later with French, listening to recordings every day on long train commutes to work in NRW. That wasn’t very successful, but I think that may have been due to the lack of any meaningful foundation in a Latin-derived language. Now, with such a foundation recently acquired in Portuguese, I’m finding it much easier to understand French and other languages from the same group to the extent that I think a repeat of my earlier attempts might have better prospects of success.

    You mention of “comprehensible input” makes complete sense, and I look forward to exploring Krashen’s work to learn more. I came across your post here in a search I made after approaching the “boiling point” while reading for a university class I’m in which seems (so far) to have missed out on nearly all the research and theories of the past 20 years. I am a little more optimistic after reading your contribution.

  2. Pingback: The bilingual brain – Ute's International Lounge

  3. It’s possible to learn a language like a child does but an adult would have to surround themselves constantly by people who speak that language over the course of probably 4-5 years. That’s unrealistic for most adults who work and have life commitments.
    Children learn because they are surrounded in what is essentially intense exposure over the course of years. They acquire a basic knowledge but even in their teenage years and early adulthood still make mistakes.

    Personally, I think there’s nothing wrong with the traditional approach. It works and is a “way in” to the language. I have learnt many languages through the traditional approach.
    However, I would say that the traditional approach doesn’t work for everyone because we are all different and all have different needs. As such I don’t think there is a “correct” method or one that could be considered more efficient.
    I think it’s a matter of working out how a student learns best and then finding a bespoke approach to teaching them.

    • Absolutely, Paula. Everyone learns in a very personal way and what works for one, doesn’t for someone else. Yes, adults would need to surround themselves with people who use the target language. I have seen adults improve very quickly when the target language was one they needed for work (or studies)! I think it depends more on the context, the motivation and need to use the language, and also on how similar the language is to others the person already knows. I am aware that two very close languages can also lead to “mixing up the languages” and to frustrations about this, but generally speaking, if we need to learn a language with another script, word order etc. it takes more time and energy.

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