Learning a new language can make you feel like a baby sometimes. At the beginning, you struggle to make your needs known and make yourself understood. The sounds you are making are hard to form. Not every word comes out correctly and people don’t always know what you are trying to say.
This is not always a great feeling, but not all baby talk is bad. Babies are excellent language learners, and they can actually teach us a lot about how to learn a new language.
My just-turned-two-year-old’s Mandarin is great, amazing in fact. His language abilities (in both English and Chinese) are exploding right now. He is picking up new words all the time, speaking much more clearly, and beginning to speak in full phrases and sentences.
When he speaks Mandarin his pronunciation is really good. And the Chinese words that he does know he knows as concretely as his English vocabulary. He is completely fluent in what Mandarin he knows.
Why is his Chinese so great? Because he was born here? Because he had so much early exposure? Because he is naturally gifted?
Perhaps some of this is true, but the real reason his Mandarin is amazing already is simply because he is not afraid to try. He is not intimidated by how much he doesn’t know and is incredibly persistent. That is the key to his success in language learning.
I still have a long way to go in my study of Chinese, but I know way more vocabulary than my son. I know lots more about the grammar and structure of the language. I can carry on a longer conversation. I can analyze the tones in Mandarin. I can buckle down and memorize a list of new vocabulary.
In reality, he doesn't know that much Chinese yet. He is only two years old after all. It will be a long time before he learns as much as I have in certain areas.
But he still has so much to teach me.
He is never afraid to speak. He talks all the time. He talks to anyone, everyone, and himself.
He talks and keeps on talking, using any words he already knows to get the help he wants. He is incredibly persistent. Often while explaining things he knows, he learns new words.
He lacks the fear and inhibitions that I find hold me back. He just says whatever he is thinking. He doesn't care if he makes mistakes. He just goes on expressing himself, even if his language skills aren't perfect. Perfection is not his goal; communication is all he wants to achieve.
Even when my son is alone, he is always talking. Phrases he has heard in conversation, videos, or even from the street seller’s bullhorn as it drives by get repeated as he plays with toys. While he is playing with playdough, you might hear him saying kuai zi, kuai zi, kuai zi. As he builds a block tower, he can be heard saying zhende ma? He practices he new vocabulary during his free time over and over, just enjoying the sound of the words.
We might not have as much playtime as Alexander. And certainly using more “advanced” study techniques and by taking classes adults can acquire more language faster than a baby. But these little language learners can still teach us a lot.
Talk all the time. Talk to everyone, everyone and yourself. Don’t be afraid if you don’t know exactly what to say. Use the words you do know in order to explain what you don’t. You can learn the new words you need this way. Be persistent. Don’t give up if someone doesn’t understand what you are saying the first time. Try to explain what you want in another way.
Don’t let perfect use of Mandarin be your goal. Aim for simple, effective communication. Real fluency doesn’t come from being textbook perfect all of the time but rather by using the language frequently.
Even when you don’t know exactly what to say in another language, say something. Talk and keep talking until someone understands you. Practice saying new words over and over to yourself. You will find yourself progressing much faster in your language learning if you try, try, and try again.