This Question Came to My Inbox: “At What Age is it Easiest to Learn a Foreign Language?”

I have seen people all over the world learning foreign languages, and I can emphatically say that learning a foreign language as young as you can is the best. My earliest acquaintance with kids and foreign languages was in Morocco. My younger brother was only 2 years old when we went to Morocco. When he got cose to 3 years old, my parents hired a gardener named Yagoop. My brother hung out with Yagoop all the time, and he and Yagoop spoke only Arabic together. I knew some girls whose father was American and mother was German in Morocco. The girls went to school with me and their parents were friends of my parents. I overheard a conversation the adults we having, and the parents of these girls were completely amazed at what their daughters were doing. They said when the went to Germany to visit, the girls melded right in. They spoke perfect German fluently, and the parents had only spoken English to them and thought they could only speak English. After that, they came back to Morocco where the girls were around English speakers, and the girls acted like they couldn’t speak German and only spoke English. However, on the next trip to Germany, they were chattering on in German again amazing their parents. I took note, and I wish I had that opportunity. I had French lessons at school, and I picked it up pretty easily, but was never as good as those girls were in German. They had learned to speak German without ever studying it. With me learning some French when I was young has influenced the rest of my life because it became a foundation for me to learn other languages easier than other people.

If you put an English speaking child with this group of Japanese children, the Japanese children would be learning English, and the English speaking child would be learning Japanese just because they want to play together. They don’t need lessons, just playing together. Photo by Naomi Shi on Pexels.com

The next time I saw the phenomena of what very small children can do with a foreign language was in Japan. The missionary’s children in Japan amazed me! I was busy talking to one of the little half Japanese half American toddlers. We were speaking Japanese, and all of a sudden, he was using really strange words. I asked his mother what he was saying, and she said he was using a technical name for the kind of gold fish he was pointing at. As a college student, I had only learned a very generic Japanese vocabulary, and this 2 year old was speaking Japanese circles around me even though I could carry on conversations in Japanese. I was just generally communicating, but at 2 years old, this little boy was speaking not only English, but also complicated Japanese.

There were other children of the Japanese missionaries who were attending Japanese schools and functioning in Japanese just as if they were Japanese. The father of the toddler I was talking to decided to explain something to the American students, and it made sense. He let us know that when a child is born into a bi-lingual environment, they may begin speaking slower than children who are born into a mono-lingual environment, but they are processing two languages. In the end, they speak both languages like native speakers without having to have studied either one.

it was amazing seeing a little three year old girl translating for her parents. Photo by Polesie Toys on Pexels.com

The next time I saw the phenomena was in Texas. There were Mexicans who came from Mexico into Texas who couldn’t speak English, but they had a three year old daughter with them translating for them. She had never been to school, but had just picked English up and was speaking like a native speaker of both English and Spanish.

Children learn an enormous amount just from playing with one another. Photo by Polesie Toys on Pexels.com

When I had kids, I wanted my kids to have this gift of language of not having to study a foreign language to be able to speak it. When I went to Romania, I had three kids, fifth grade, 2nd grade, and two years old. I got myself private Romanian lessons, and I wanted them for my kids, but they didn’t want Romanian lesson. My husband took lessons for a while, and just gave up. My fifth grader and 2nd grader were playing with Romanian kids, and were just learning naturally without lesson. In fact, as my 5th grader got closer to high school, he let me know in no uncertain terms that he thought studying a foreign language was utter absurdity, and he would never do it. He didn’t have to study. He became fluent without studying. When I got sick and couldn’t translate, he substituted for me. As my 2nd grader got older, she melded in so well that in high school, she sounded just like a Romanian girl her age. As my two year old got older, he was struggling with everything, but he also learn to speak Romanian. I eventually learned he was dyslexic in his eye and his ears, but he learned to speak Romanian without lessons too. He is actually a kind of a miracle. The doctors said he would never even learn to read in English. However, he learned to read not only in English, but also in Spanish. He learned to speak Romanian and Spanish, and today, he is a Math teacher. When kids encounter language when they are young, even kids with learning disabilities overcome, and he is extremely intelligent. I used to send him to a special nursery school where the teachers worked to teach him Romanian.

I had a baby while living in Romania. In the beginning, she heard so much Romanian she refused to speak English. She was about six months to a year old, and the only words we could get from her were Romanian. She was using complicated grammatical patterns that I had studied hard to understand. I was getting concerned because she didn’t use English at all. Finally, we went to the States for three months, and she began speaking English just as well as she was speaking Romanian. Now a days, she is fluent in English and Korean and speaks Romanian, but feels a lack because she doesn’t understand the grammar like she does in English and Korean. She studied both English and Korean in school. She also speaks a little Japanese. When she was in elementary school, we spent a year in Japan, and she was picking Japanese up from just playing with the kids. In the end, my oldest speaks English, Romanian, and German. My second child speaks English, Romanian, Spanish, and some Japanese. The languages they speak the best are the ones they learned when they were younger, but didn’t study.

Also while in Romania, I knew a little girl who parents could only speak English together because it was the only language they had in common. The father was from Yugoslavia, and the mother was from Romania. Their little girl spoke Yugoslavian, Romanian, and English, all three fluently.

As we get older, we think we need to learn the grammar and study vocabulary, but that is the hard way to learn a language. We have forgotten how to listen. Photo by Retha Ferguson on Pexels.com

Adults have a harder time learning than children do. We are born with a talent. It is a talent of listening and interpreting from context. That is how we learn our first language. The older people get, they seem to forget how to listen. One of the things that has really helped me as I have been learning languages is that I never forgot how to listen when people talk. I listen and learn expressions and words they use in particular situations and that they work, so I use them in that situation too.

We drive ourselves crazy thinking we need to study because we have forgotten how to listen like children. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

When we take a language class, too often, the teachers don’t speak to us in the language, but have us memorize vocabulary and teach us grammar. I was actually substituting in a in school Spanish class once in Forth Worth, Texas and I was speaking to them in Spanish because I always do that in a foreign language class for the students. The principal called me in and asked me to stop speaking in Spanish to the students because it scared them. I told him I spoke Spanish to them to help them speak, and he said they didn’t have to learn to speak Spanish, but just to know the grammar and vocabulary on the page. It made no sense to me, but I have learned that many foreign language classes are taught the same way.

There are a lot of confused S. Koreans who have had to study English, but can’t speak English. Photo by Deden Dicky Ramdhani on Pexels.com

In S. Korea, they seemed to go the complete opposite way. They try to hire native speakers of English who speak no Korean to make their students struggle to understand. The problem is that there is too big of a difference between the two languages, and only the smartest students catch on like that. I was successful as an English professor because I figured out what was bothering those students and made a bridge for them, and students who couldn’t speak learned to speak in my classes.

My Japanese language teacher, Mrs. Saito, is the best language teacher I ever had because she understood how to teach you Japanese like it was your first language. What she taught clicked for me because I had not lost the ability to listen because I had grown up with foreign language. The other students hadn’t grown up with foreign language, and they found it more difficult to listen like small children do. Photo by David Dibert on Pexels.com

The nice thing about the Japanese class I attended in Japan was that the teacher actually had a system of starting out on a very low level and slowly building. It was like we were learning Japanese as a first language. She couldn’t speak English. There were no vocabulary tests. If we didn’t understand the grammar, she didn’t teach it. There was a part of our book that had explanations of Japanese grammar we could study. She spoke to us in complete sentences and expected us to also speak in complete sentences. She had us copying Japanese out of a book. She was teaching us to repeat just like children repeat with their first language. She spoke to us in Japanese and wanted us to repeat what she said like children repeat. Teaching a language like the students are babies really works if the students can learn to really listen and repeat what the hear like babies do.

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