by Dwight Gradin
Language is something we all learned as kids without a lot of thought or stress. Adults, on the other hand, struggle with learning another language.
Our language is easy to learn. Why, even my little grandson can speak it. — Old man to a new missionary in Tanzania.
Language learning belongs in the child’s domain. Language is something we all learned as kids without a lot of thought or stress. It just seemed to happen. Adults, on the other hand, struggle with learning another language. Granted, for some it comes fairly easy, but for most of us who go abroad, it’s one of the hardest things we’ll ever do. Why?
WHAT IS IT ABOUT LANGUAGE THAT PUTS IT IN THE CHILD’S DOMAIN?
Language is something everyone creates. Everyone constructs his own version of the language. No one speaks exactly like another person. Those who already speak it are models, but language is not precise, like math. Language is dynamic. Languages change over time; each succeeding generation creates new versions.
When adults learn another language (or rather construct their own version of it), their first language interferes with their ability to develop native-like pronunciation and proficiency.
On the other hand, little children who go abroad are still in the process of constructing their "mother tongue." Since they haven’t completely locked in to that sound system, they are able to accommodate another one.
Language is a human (and therefore developmental) activity. It doesn’t fit with math, science, history. It fits with sitting, crawling, standing, walking, running.
Adults tend to make language learning an academic pursuit. To them, it is no longer a naturally developed human activity.
Little children learn language along with everything else they are learning. That is also how they will learn a new one. Language is social and interactive when real needs are being met, when necessary messages are getting across, when actual communication is taking place.
Adults try to learn language isolated from people, or they are often placed in contrived rather than real communication settings. Little children never learn words or sentences apart from people, or apart from what’s going on. It is always in context and always real. It also turns out that way for them in a new language.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT CHILDREN THAT PUTS LANGUAGE LEARNING IN THEIR DOMAIN?
Children are completely open. The world they know is basically friendly. Their guard is not up. They don’t have to defend themselves against it. Furthermore, children are enthralled by newness; they are captivated by the ordinary; they talk about the obvious.
This makes them completely open to language input. Language must get in before it can come out. Language must be correctly heard before it can be correctly produced. That requires total openness.
Adults tend to have their defenses up. They tend to protect themselves. In fact, the more they’ve gotten "burned" in the past, the less open they may be. As a result, some language input gets blocked or filtered out and never gets in. (Filters keep out what will be harmful to the engine, but if clogged, filters also hamper what needs to get in.)
Children let life happen. Life is extremely complex, but not for kids. To them, life is simple and uncomplicated. That also carries through when they go abroad. They "unpack,â€? emotionally and psychologically, quite readily in a new environment because in a real sense they haven’t done any "packing."
Children do not have to be objective. They don’t fight against time. They don’t think about the future. They don’t have to do any planning.
For example, they don’t have to think about what to have for the next meal. It doesn’t cross their minds. That’s mom’s job. All they have to do is show up eat it. They don’t have a thing to worry about. Life to a child is to be enjoyed. It’s somebody else’s responsibility to make the crucial decisions about life and to pay the bills.
Adults not only don’t live this way, they can’t. If they did, it would be disastrous. Adults must be more serious about life. Decisions must always be made: What are we going to do when this is over? What do I have to do to get ready for it?
Consequently, adults tend to hold life at arm’s length. They do not let life happen like children do.
Language is best learned in the context of life, as life is being lived. Children often get totally absorbed, totally engrossed, completely losing track of time. That, plus their total openness, is ideal for language learning purposes.
Children can just be there. They are not expected to talk, to respond, to initiate. They are given time to let the language in. No one expects them to come out with anything profound. When they do talk, it is perfectly okay to say anything they want. That they are beginning to talk is more important than what they say.
Adults do not have that luxury. Adults are expected to do more than just be there. They are expected to talk. And beyond that, they must have a purpose in their talk. It must have substance, or so they feel.
Children have inner and interpersonal "shalom." They generally feel safe and secure in themselves and in their relationships. Their minds are not cluttered by hurtful things that people have done or to them. Children get over things quickly. They are good forgivers and for-getters. They do not expend energy brooding or conjuring up ways to get back at people who have wronged them.
Adults tend to let things stick in their craw. Tensions in relationships do not resolve easily. They may spend emotional energy trying to figure out secondary messages, what people meant by their actions and words. They are also occupied with what might be, or what might have been. They do not let things go like children do. As a result, personal buoyancy may be slowed and emotional resiliency weakened. To whatever degree this is true, the mental and emotional energy required for language learning is affected, sometimes drastically.
HOW CAN AN OLDER PERSON GET BACK INTO HIS OR HER CHILD SELF AGAIN?
First, look at two major advantages adults over children in learning another language:
1. Children’s learning is basically limited to what is currently happening. They don’t have much control over it. Adults, on the other hand, can make things happen. Adults can create optimal language learning contexts. Adults can structure events so that language learning can take place.
2. Language learning for children follows a natural developmental process. Children go with the flow. However, adults can accelerate that developmental process for themselves. Adults can learn much more quickly. A child will learn the language better (i.e., accent free), but an adult should learn it faster.
However, adults tend to limit themselves to certain ways of learning. Adults are often subjected to a process that makes language learning more difficult than it needs to be. They need to be reoriented to what language is, how it is best learned, and to productive techniques and personal projects that will facilitate the process. (This is what Missionary Internship’s Program in Language Acquisition Techniques is all about.)
One task of the language learning facilitator is to determine to what degree the four advantages of children described above can be restored to adults. For instance, the facilitator needs to provide a situation where:
• Adults can relax their defenses and work toward opening or cleaning their filters, so that the language can get in. The language learning center of the brain needs to be reactivated in adults.
• Life is as uncomplicated and stress-free as it can be, so that adults will have extended times of being totally engrossed in the language, without a lot of other things on their minds.
• The topics of conversation are simple but real, adult learners feeling comfortable talking about very trivial things, or just being there. Trivia is the name of the game at the initial stages of language learning. One begins there and slowly works up to significant talk.
• The relationships (teacher-student, student-student, husband-wife) are positive and adults feel as safe and secure as possible. Inner and interpersonal "shalom" are strategic to language learning.
To adjust the words of Jesus, "Unless you repent and become as little children, you will in no wise enter the kingdom of language learning."
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