“Try, trust and learn like a child”. Drawing from their teaching experience, that’s what our UNUmondo coaches say helps the most when it comes to learning and practicing German or Swiss German. However, it’s not without a challenge that they manage to convey this mindset to their adult, often times perfectionist learners.
Many of us associate adulthood with seriousness and cling to that while disregarding so many aspects that we used to have naturally as a child. However, those are still extremely helpful when learning a language. We know that children learn fast and even envy the ease with which they acquire a language. However, we don’t really reflect on why that is and whether we should, and could, learn to be more like children.
Aristotle believed that philosophy starts with wondering. And wondering is something children are extremely good at. They are naturally in awe at what’s surrounding them since everything is so new and intriguing. They ask questions and request endless explanations to the exasperation of their parents or care takers. And they’re also eager to learn, to understand and to imitate what adults are doing or saying. It is precisely this attitude that enables them to acquire a vast knowledge of the world, as well as learning all the words needed to describe it, in such a limited amount of time. Adulthood brings with itself an extensive life- and world-experience and the ability to rationalize and generalize. This is greatly useful in daily life and allows us to invest our time in more practical ways towards satisfying the immediate demands of life. However, it also takes from us the ability to wonder at the simplest things and feel the joy and curiosity that children feel in discovering their environment. Why don’t you try and look at the world surrounding you with the fresh eyes of a child or at least with the curiosity of a tourist? Whether it’s in your country, your city or neighbourhood, or even your house, I’m sure there’s still so much to discover and stories to learn and this will give you the enthusiasm and opportunities to learn so many new words and use them.
Getting what you want
Another thing that children have to their advantage when it comes to learning a language, especially their first language, is their need. Soon enough they understand that, without communicating with the people around them, they cannot really get what they want. Initially, crying helps them satisfying their most basic needs. However, once their desires become more diversified and sophisticated, they need to make themselves understood. That’s how they first acquire the vocabulary related to their areas of needs and interests, mainly toys, food and family members. Also, they don't have the urge to create a perfect sentence. They just want to express their need and get what they want, even if it’s with one simple word.
Unfortunately, need does not always play a role in language acquisition for adults. We either procure everything we want ourselves, without having to rely on someone else and needing to communicate our need to them, or we make ourselves understood in a different language. Especially if we’re in Switzerland, and we can easily get around with English in shops and different offices. However, just like the saying goes, this is only giving us a fish today, but not teaching us to fish and be fed for a lifetime. Therefore, even if you don’t have to, try to satisfy your needs in German first, without starting with English or another language. And, just like children, remember that you don’t need to formulate perfect sentences or stick to German. Don’t worry, it’s perfectly fine to resort to English whenever you’re lacking a word or two. What matters is that you start applying what you already know in German and use it in your real, daily life.
Building on the previous point, another fundamental need that children have is connecting to people. For example, when they're at the playground they just want to communicate with other children, play together and therefore revert to language as the natural mechanism of connection. Again, adults usually prefer communicating in the language they’re more comfortable with. And that’s perfectly understandable, since this gives them self-confidence and the ability to express everything they want to convey. Often, the mental obstacle that learners face when using German is lack of self confidence or the fact that their vocabulary is too limited to sustain a lengthy conversation with a native speaker. Having understood the importance of speaking from day one and taking advantage of any opportunities they have to communicate with native speakers, a mechanism that our learners use when communicating with German native speakers is setting the stage. By letting their conversation partners know that they want to practice German but they’re still learning the language and might have to say a couple of words in English when necessary, our learners gain the self confidence to use German, without fearing that they will not be able to convey their message, be misunderstood or judged by whom they’re speaking with.
Trying and trusting
Last but probably the most important aspect that differentiate children from adult learners is that they don’t fear failure and don’t put unnecessary pressure on themselves while learning a new language. That’s what allows them to just try to speak and trust that they will make themselves understood one way or another and get what they want. Or make a new friend. Adults instead place so many mental blockages in the way of their own success. Whether thinking that they’re too old, too busy, or not apt for languages, we often find excuses for our own failure even before giving it a real shot. We thus sabotage ourselves and end up confirming our own prophecy.
That’s why fighting these blockages and approaching every learning journey with a positive mindset, curiosity and enthusiasm paves the way for your success and is more important than anything else. Once we learn to give up all these preconceptions regarding adulthood and adult learning and embrace more of the characteristics that we used to have as children, our learning will be faster and more enjoyable, just like children’s. Can you also see where you could invite more of these child-like qualities into your life and learning process?