From unconscious to conscious “competents”: how adults can learn new languages as if they were children

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Kids are “unconscious competents”. Most learn languages quickly and easily, seemingly without trying. Let’s copy them so we adults can dispel the myth that only children can learn new languages. I learned six languages after the age of 18. I was still “unconscious” of what I was doing to be successful, and it took me years to figure out the rules of what I had done.

Now I am a “conscious competent” 😉 and that is to my benefit. It helps me to teach better – and also to learn. I am now using those “rules” and “strategies” to master Arabic sounds, and have fun pronouncing words in Arabic … (plus Farsi, Dari, Pashtun, three dialects of Kurdish, and improve my Turkish.)  Once the basics are mastered, Arabic will be my 9th language. I am not sharing this to boast – but to warmly encourage adults to try a new language, at ANY time in their life. Wish me luck with my upcoming workshops with refugee children in Bonn! I know in advance that the teacher-learner ratio will be 1:1 😉 and that the children will be the the most effective, kindest and most generous teachers, like my 6 – 12 year old “teachers” in Prague. Thanks to my Czech youngsters, I learned the difficult Czech language, and I am proud of myself. And I am grateful. This “two-way street” fuels my mission to serve others in learning languages – namely, to serve children.

Here are some suggestions for the mindset behind learning languages as an adult. They are oversimplified but are true nevertheless. They sure worked for me!

1. Study. But don’t just read and write at home and then stop until the next time you sit down. Think of the words you will use with people in the real world, away from your desk, who speak the target language. Think of the things you would say in your own language, that make you feel good and make you laugh.  Think back to things you have said to others – in your native language – that made them laugh.  Things you knew in advance would make them laugh, be fascinated or simply caught their attention. and so you’ve used them in more than one situation.  – and others too. Just two words here, three words there … plus words that are relevant to the context of a social group you are part of that has people who speak your target language.

2. Not part of such a group? When a child needs new playmates, the parents often find some organisation – like a Facebook group for parents – and at their discretion, make contacts and friends over time.  When you need “playdates” for practicing the language, don’t hesitate to do the same.  Find groups that involve activities and join them, and then go to activity-centred meetings.  Through a clear context, you will have plenty of “homework” – which would be preparation for talking about the activity and verbally participating in the activity. The first way to meet people is the organic way: ask your friends if they know anyone who speaks that language and find ways to meet that person or those people. Also Internations, or expat.(name of country). When I was living in Prague, helped me to find a lovely turkish woman who taught me Turkish, while I taught her English. I am in touch with her to this day and also with her friends.

Try in your city.  Now living in Bonn for a mere 5 months, I have made a host of friends on;  one of them is also a German-English tandem partner.  Thanks to him I was able to get my CV and some drama workshop proposals done in perfect German, while he simply seeks a refinement in his English.   Try a Facebook group too – especially one that has members who speak the target language. There is also (most people on there are very nice – do practice discretion though.) There are many more ways but I cannot list them here. My first French contact was my penpal, Albane, when I was 18 (there was no internet at the time – I met her through an exchange program in college. We’ve lost touch since then, but to this day, I am friends with her friends, 25 years later. Go figure!

3. Read children’s books in the target language. If you can, take notes on all new words you learned.

Read with a child, if you can – with both of you reading out loud together.  Sound out the words as the child sounds out the words. Depending on the child’s age or, more importantly, the child’s reading level, you will be varying degrees of teacher and student, with that child also taking on both roles.

Let the child be your teacher. Children make the best teachers! They do not over-explain things but only tell you what you need to know, no more, no less.

Be a teacher for that child.  Be both teachers and students, together, reading that book.  Discuss the book with the child.  Practice speaking the words by this discussion.  Use simple sentences to say what you think or to ask questions.  The child will either answer /ask questions using simple short statements or, if extraverted and chatty, longer statements.
Babysit kids who speak the language you wish to learn. Ask for free lessons from the parents of those kids in exchange for your free childcare. You get two lessons for the price of one ;).

4. Listen to kids and their families conversing together in the target language.
Spend time with children, converse with them and let them chat to you in their language. They are so precious when they do this, clueless to the fact that you are struggling to understand. If they are talking about their toys, make the most of it. The conversation is about concrete things. Let them be your teacher. Make them conscious that they are your teacher in this moment. Have them introduce colors, shapes, other adjectives to you, in talking about their toys. Repeat as much as you can. You empower the child and linguistically, you empower yourself too.

5. Pay attention to what your mouth is doing when you are practicing the words. What your tongue, teeth and lips are doing, and what your breath – voiced or unvoiced – is doing as it passes through your mouth. What the relationship is between those body parts in their varied combinations. Kids don’t think – they just do. Same for us, but if you pause and pay attention, you can reproduce it and improve it, until that sound is effortless. If you can imitate an animal or do a funny “accent”, you can learn to pronounce new words – and the sounds to each letter of those words – even sounds that don’t exist in your own language. You literally train your mouth to do it.

6. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. In fact, make mistakes because not only do you make less of them over time – you also come across as having a sense of humour, openly vulnerable and human, and that makes you disarming, charming and likeable. People work all day and are tired and cynical. Your mistakes (and laughter at them) is a real breath of fresh air!

7. When people say “Oh, just tell me in English”, say “I don’t speak English” in their language. Learn this in advance so you can say it to them. It will require them to speak in their language with you. I did this in the Czech Republic when I first moved there. Also, be “unaware” (or indifferent) to any inner voice telling you that you are taking too long to make your point. Make your point in that language and don’t worry about “boring” anyone. In most cases, you are not, trust me. And if you are, who cares?
It took some cheek (which also helps to learn a language faster.) A little spirit is also youthful – another breath of fresh air! Be cheeky.

8. Celebrate the fact that your language is very simple. Imagine how much more direct you are because you don’t have a full arsenal of words at your disposal. Imagine how cute you sound – and how much people respect you and admire you for your bravery. It’s true. Plus, not knowing a language well makes you strain to understand – and THAT makes you a very good listener, which is very charismatic. It is another way to make people feel good. They like you for it and invite you out more. They find you open and disarming, not to mention gutsy. You make friends fast and strangers are happy to help you. By being a good listener (for language purposes amongst other things) you are very present, which is both wise AND child-like. We all know how “present” children are. You make people feel good to be around you and they want to do more for you. I’d say that not knowing a language well is anything but a handicap. It’s a PLUS. Be like a kid – and you will entertain others by being “natural” and funny. You will charm them (sometimes without them even knowing why) and you will make friends fast. And you will have all the support you want and need to get better at that language. Thrive on your mistakes; relish them!

Kids do all these things and that is why they seem to learn so quickly. Be playful in life and in your communication approaches and practice. It definitely pays off. Enjoy the process!


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