Tuesday, April 15, 2014

How To Learn a New Language in Less Than 6 Months

Have you heard the old concept that children can pick up other languages much quicker than adults? It seems to be true…but have you ever wondered why?

My eldest son was 6 years old when we came to Tonga. He knew three Tongan words: kai (eat), lotu (pray) and ha’u (come here). A week later, we sent him off to the local village school, where all lessons are taught in Tongan. He was really thrown in at the deep end, and I had some serious misgivings.

I don’t doubt that he struggled in the beginning, but within a month he was semi-fluent (enough to understand, and be understood by others) and by the end of that semester (5 months later) he was fully fluent, and ranked third in class, where all the other children were native speakers.

One day, I was listening to my children playing outside and I suddenly had an epiphany as to why my children had picked up the language so quickly. There are five reasons for this, and when you understand them, any adult can use the same principles to be speaking a new language in less than 6 months.

But first..


  • People will be delighted that you’ve made the effort to communicate with them in their own language. It’s kind of arrogant to assume that others will bend over backwards to speak YOUR language every time you wish to communicate, especially if you are the visitor in their country.
  • You’ll better understand the culture, since language and culture are so intricately connected. 
  • Learning a second language improves memory, creativity, concentration levels and helps prevent dementia. 
  • Being able to speak a second language literally allows you to “see” the world from a different perspective. 
  •  The confidence you gain from mastering another language is priceless.
  •  The ability to speak another language opens up opportunities for friendships, relationships and job/business advancement that might have otherwise been overlooked.
Now, how to go about learning a language as quickly and efficiently as any kid? Let’s take a look at the reasons why kids are such efficient little learners.

#1 Kids talk to other kids! As adults we are at somewhat of a disadvantage when starting out with a new language. Generally, we find ourselves amongst other adults and listening to adult conversations, which may be anything from politics to religion to local gossip or current affairs. If you’re new to the language, the vast majority of the conversation will go right over your head. 

Contrast this with kids, however. Their conversations are simple and generally use a lot of repetition. They’re usually playing at the same time, so their conversation will be more like: “Throw me the ball” and “Stand here” or “It’s my turn” or “Give it to me”, usually repeated several times over the course of the conversation. 

So, the next time you are in a situation where people are speaking another language, seek out the children and join in their activities. Guaranteed within half an hour, you’ll have some simple phrases under your belt, which can be used in everyday life.

How To Use This To Your Advantage: Hang out with kids more. Listen and repeat. Kids are awesome teachers.

#2 Kids are not burdened by the expectation that learning a new language is “difficult” and will take a long time. 

When we have beliefs and preconceived ideas (whether they’re correct, or not), we then look for evidence to “prove” that they’re correct. In this sense, we become our own worst enemies when the “proof” we’re seeking is that we are terrible at learning something new, we just make mistake after mistake, it's going to take years before we're any good at this…

As “A Course in Miracles” states: “Once you form a belief, you attach all your senses and all your life to it’s survival”. 

Kids are not held back by any of these notions. They just get in there and start repeating what they hear. It’s quite simple, really.

How to Use This To Your Advantage: Believe that you can, and will, speak fluently in another language within 6 months. Look for evidence that it is not only possible, but entirely do-able, and you’ll start finding it everywhere.

#3. Kids are courageous. Generally speaking, kids are not as self-conscious as we adults, and less concerned about making a fool of themselves. For example: I was listening to my (then 3 year old) son playing with his cousin. They were using the kind of simple phrases I mentioned earlier. As I listened carefully, I realized my son knew some of the words but not enough to actually string them together into a sentence. But that didn’t stop him from trying!

I had an epiphany then, because I realized if it were me, I would simply revert to English, or stay quiet. How many learning opportunities I must have missed, for fear of looking like an idiot! I decided then to learn from my children, and quit worrying about correct grammar and whether my sentence was perfect, and practice what I knew, anyway. I’ve improved in leaps and bounds ever since.

Yes, you may meet the occasional doofus who will remind you for the next five years that you once pronounced “hide” so it sounded like “masturbate” (Every Tongan will know what I’m talking about here…) Yes, you’ll occasionally say things you didn’t intend to say. Yes, you may tell everyone that you are going to cut down the undergrowth, while actually saying that you are going to cut the pubic hair. (True story!) 

Despite these unfortunate (but often hilarious) mishaps, the vast majority of people will love that you are making the effort, their respect for you grows, and they’ll help you out when they see you struggling to pronounce a word or put a sentence together using strange hand gestures. It goes without saying that a sense of humor comes in handy, when learning a new language…

It also helps to remember that if we always hide our struggles or “weaknesses”, we deny others the opportunity to help us and show us how much they care and support us. 

How To Use This To Your Advantage: Make learning the language a priority. If you become the butt of a few jokes along the way, then so be it. Also, it’s okay to not be perfect, to not be an expert. When you humble yourself to be a learner, you’ll find teachers everywhere, ready and willing to help you out.

#4 Kids are naturally curious about everything. We learn and retain information that is relevant to us. For a kid, that means a lot, because they’re fascinated by everything! They want to know why the sky is blue, why people get married, who made the fish in the ocean, how come ants can walk upside-down and how long is a piece of string!

Because we’re constantly bombarded by information, our brain filters out that which is not deemed useful or relevant. When you’re a child, trying to figure out how the world works, it is a matter of great importance to figure out this kind of stuff, so you can develop some sense of security and safety within it. You tend to learn pretty quickly, if your brain deems it necessary for your survival.

How To Use This To Your Advantage: Be curious! Ask too many questions. A sense of curiosity and wonder opens the mind, so that learning is inevitable. It also makes learning fun.

#5 Kids practice, even when they don't "have to". One thing I noticed was that, if given the choice (such as talking with someone who was also fluent in English), I would immediately revert back to English. Almost all of my conversations with my husband happened in English, because it was easier, and it was what I was comfortable with.

Unfortunately, real growth happens when we step outside our comfort zones!

My kids, on the other hand, when confronted with someone who was also fluent in English, would still speak in Tongan, or perhaps a mix of English and Tongan. This practicing whenever possible not only helps to reinforce language associations and improve pronunciation, but it helps to develop facial muscles which may be under-used in our own language.
How To Use This To Your Advantage: Practice whenever possible, even if "easier" and more comfortable options are available to you.

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