June 4, 2016 Learning

Learning is Child’s Play

It has been said that after the age of 7, you can’t really learn a second language.  I say, Poppycock!

Children are like little sponges- well after the age of 7- they soak up everything around them. They speak with Mom in French and Dad in Mandarin easily navigating between two seemingly disparate languages – giggling about mistakes and funny sounding words.

I had a Dutch friend with a 6 year old son, his mom was my Dutch tutor and his dad a Yale professor.   He often wanted to speak to me in English. Once, he came to me and said –  “Robert, I can count to 10 in English!”  I listened dutifully as he counted ‘one, two, three, four, five, ses, seven, acht, negen, tien!”.  He’d started in English and seamlessly moved to Dutch. As he finished, he looked up at me and we both laughed!

Children have no filter – more precisely – they have no mistake filter. They just don’t care if they say ‘I brang it’ rather than ‘I brought it’, or if they start counting in Japanese and end up in Finnish! It’s all the same. Just different sounds and words that mean the same thing.  With Daddy I use this word and with my mom I use that word.

When you take on a new language, you must become  a child again!  I don’t mean you should start running around throwing your toys in the air and jumping on your bed, (although a bit of that wouldn’t be bad).  What I mean is don’t care about making mistakes!  Remember what it felt like to just be a kid with no limits to your thinking.  Be willing to just say it– without thinking about anyone else.   I think that this is the most crucial aspect of language learning.  A willingness to just try things out- use the language. Speak the words you know in German and then fill in with English or French or Japanese as you use the words you learn them and add more.

As adults, we are taught to be, logical and perfect that there is one correct answer. We are taught that mistakes are bad and must be avoided.  When learning a new language, throw all this out the window.  It just gets in the way.

I used to teach French and Italian classes to adults. It was so much fun -mostly because everyone in the class really wanted to learn.  In the first five minutes of the class, I told them that they had to leave the adult at the door, and become children.  Mistakes were welcomed, mistakes were necessary and more importantly, mistakes are funny – so let’s laugh.  Of course, we needed to study correct verb forms, perfect tense endings and perfect pronunciation, and everyone flubbed it at some point.  It’s normal to do and so we just laughed.

There is no secret to how to do this.  I think you simply give yourself license to become a 7 year old and set out to laugh at yourself when you make a mistake!

Eventually, something magical will occur.  When you give yourself the freedom to make mistakes, you liberate yourself from self-criticism, self-inspection and most important, feelings of incompetence.  Instead you leave a space to learn without boundaries.

When you combine your logical side and learn new words, new verbs, new expressions correctly with the wide-eyed innocence of a 7year old, you will quickly learn to speak the language you’ve chosen like a native!


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