Baby Language Learner.

So I have had the pleasure of spending more time with a new person these days. And by that I don’t mean someone who is new to me, I mean someone who is new to this world. Some good friends have an 18 month old girl, half Korean half white, and they speak both English and Korean to her. And over these past few months of spending time with her, she has taught me so much about language and the way it develops in our brain.

The most amazing thing is how well she understands everything we say — WITHOUT BEING ABLE TO SPEAK A SINGLE SENTENCE. Is that not astonishing? As lanuage learners we often start out with this sense that we need to be able to speak this language before we even understand it. We start speaking from the beginning… first the greetings, saying thank you, pleasantries. Then we start trying to actually learn the language and get frustrated by not being able to understand what people say to us. Without knowing their intentions, how can we properly respond to them? This amazing new person — this bright new mind — spends all day everyday just listening and learning. That is to say that while she can understand things like “Use this remote to change whats on the screen” or “someone is coming over to the house later today,” she can NOT say something as simple as 사과. The physical limitations of her ability to control her mouth leave her unable to say what she thinks. These thoughts, initially inspired and created by the language of her loving parents, existing in her mind in full form, cannot make themselves out into the air. Her vocal organ cannot make the necessary sounds. Yet she clearly knows them. How amazing is that? Seriously.

And yet, there are times I see when she is frustrated by this. The 답답함 she feels in those moments must be so overwhelming. How do I know? Because I have them as a language learner now. Stuck with a tongue that won’t make the right sound or a complete lack of necessary vocabulary. It’s a wall. When she hits the wall, she cries. But sometimes she just shakes it off. As adults, we must recognize this and let it be. We did it then, we do it now. We make feel like crying at times. We may be able to shake it off other times. Inevitably there will be times that we will feel this way, but as adults, we have a great advantage. We can understand most of the deluge of information that comes our way each day. We can learn our way out of these tendencies. She may be stuck with her frustration at times, but as adults we can choose not to be.

As language learners we must acknowledge that we are growing a new person inside of us — a new person in our target language. We cannot come expect to be able to communicate our thoughts all the time. Or to understand everything others are saying. We must seek first to understand, then to be understood. That is the natural way. Grow.

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