Can adults acquire a language the same way as children?

 

Montage of languages. Prototype header for the...

Montage of languages. Prototype header for the language portal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 unrealistic, too conceptional 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.

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 learned Swissgerman and Dutch in my late 20ies and 30ies, the same way I learned German and Italian as a child. I acquired it 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 “adult”: I would compare the use an position of adjectives to similar languages I already had in my repertoire. And yes, the ability to read helped me to understand the phonetic rules on another cognitive level than a child that doesn’t read yet does. But I may say that the whole acquisitio process took place in a much natural and realistic way.

I may say that adults can acquire languages like children if they have the time and the courage to make mistakes. – Our children acquire language first and then, once they are in school (around age 10-12) they learn to analize it, to reason metalinguistically about the use of verbs, adjectives, adverbs, nouns, prepositions, connectives etc.

Personally, I find a merely grammar based approach to learning a language as very ineffective and discouraging, especially when the language needs to be learned by an adult. Therefore I always put very much effort into communication in my language trainings and coachings. I prefer starting to talk right away, to communicate and then explain the grammar alongside.

Language per definition entails communication. – And the most natural way is to acquire a new language.

 

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