From kindergarten until 6th grade, I went to a Waldorf school (a way of teaching that originated in Germany). This meant that German and foreign language acquisition was an important part of our lessons and most students became more or less fluent in a short period of time. I was one of those students.
It’s now twelve years later. I study languages and modern culture at a university in central Italy. My passions lie within the unknown of how we communicate and how communication is developed.
Despite this unyielding passion, I’ve lost all my German. I stopped using it, and every little ounce of effort that my little heart poured into the German Language has been forgotten. But was it really that much effort for me, a young child, to pick up a foreign language?
The short answer… No.
As children, our sense of shame has yet to envelope our everyday emotions. This lack of development is the very thing that makes children so susceptible to language learning. It goes much further than a higher concentration of knowledge absorption compared to adults.
As we grow up, we’re trained to feel shame when we don’t perform a task to perfection. We’re expected to get everything completely correct, resulting in our minds being programmed to that of perfection. The acquisition of language and the entire process of language learning requires the exact opposite of this.
What we lack to understand as adults is that it is only through trial and error that we can internalize the meaning of different words, phrases, and other communications that enable human interaction.
We must make mistakes for language learning to occur. We can only do this by putting ourselves in the immensely vulnerable situation of speaking the language. This isn’t an easy thing to do; it’s extremely difficult.
Putting ourselves in a situation where we will most certainly make mistakes is an extremely vulnerable thing. Add that to the not being able to communicate (a basic human necessity), and one can easily become a flustered mess.
If we look at how children learn languages, we can see that it begins with short communications such as, “Milk!” or “Mamma!” There isn’t correct verb conjugation or the use of vocabulary that is outside the child’s reality. We learn a language not by studying the rules, but by the existence of need.
It is through need that we learn, and that why it is often so difficult for adults to pick up a new language.
Children are required to learn how to communicate with their fellow humans to maintain a place in society. Even though they’re still so new to this world, they understand this. They understand that if they do not learn how to identify the person that is caring for them, they will not have their needs met. This stems from animal instinct and being in a survival mode.
When I was around age nine, I remember having a conversation, in German, with an older gentleman that had immigrated from Germany to the US. I spoke with him about this and that as I watched his face light up with excitement. He was excited because he hadn’t spoken his mother tongue in so long, and he finally had the chance. He finally got a tiny taste of sweet relief when indulged with his mother tongue.
In this moment, him and I had become polar opposites. He, a full grown man, had felt continual fear as he tried to perfect his imperfect command of the English language in all his previous communications with English speakers. I, a young child, was speaking to him in a language other than my mother tongue without a lick of fear.
The years passed, and I was not immune to the inheritance of the fear of imperfection.
Growing up in Arizona, Spanish had always been an element of my studies. However, it wasn’t until high school that I took it seriously. It was then that I was first faced with the vulnerability of language learning.
Many classes, late night study sessions, and practices later, I still wasn’t fluent. I had been learning the language for years, and although I could get by, I wasn’t fluent. I had worked so hard and put so many hours into the memorization of verb tenses and vocabulary only to get a subpar result. Consequentially, I decided to quit studying Spanish and move on.
Come my sophomore year in college, I decided to study abroad in Italy. I lived with a host family who spoke close to no English, so the need of mutually understood communication was a priority to me. In that semester, I went from zero knowledge to a level where I could easily get by in day-to-day life.
My progress was soon stifled by the lack of need and my language acquisition was at a stand still.
My second semester abroad, I moved in with my Italian boyfriend who also speaks English. I suddenly had a translator for every little piece of thing that was said. Without that need of communication through a mutual language, my fear and embarrassment took priority over the acquisition of Italian.
I’m happy to say that although I still experience that fear and feel that vulnerability, I speak Italian at much higher level than I could have ever dreamed. I attend classes at an Italian public university, meaning that all the classes are taught in Italian and it is my responsibility to follow them with a level of understanding close to that of a native speaker. This created that need for me that enabled my further linguistic growth.
Finding that courage in such a vulnerable situation is a challenge. It is only by these means, however, that language learning can be successful. Through the finding of our true “need” of language acquisition, we can imitate the process that children go through that make them such fruitful language learners.
Need a head start? Check out our article “20 Words for When You Don’t Speak the Host Language“! It’ll give you a great starting point to start speaking like a kid in your new foreign tongue.