Punk kid

Learning German: 10 pieces of advice you can safely ignore

#2. Children learn faster than adults

This is a well established wives tale that, like many popular opinions, sounds superficially plausible, but when you dig a little deeper, you find that the counter argument is actually more believable.

Why is it so easy to believe that kids learn faster than adults? It’s simple, because MORE kids learn to speak faster than adults do. But this has nothing to do with their ability and everything to do with HOW and WHAT they learn.

How many kids do you know under ten that have written books in their native language? How many have applied for a job? How many have supported a family? Filled in a VISA application?

Children don’t have to learn much to prove their skills. No child knows how to say resume, let alone spell it. They never have to understand a contract of employment, or fill out endless forms at a bank. They just learn to say, that’s mine, I want, give me and let’s play and this is enough for people to say oh look how fast they learn. Rubbish. I learned to say those things in German way faster than any little punk kid, they just got really good at it because they say it all the time and got more credit because they’re small and cute.

OK so I’m a little jealous of kids. But actually the getting credit for being young and cute isn’t far from the truth. Kids are not expected to learn quickly, so when they do, they are showered in praise which in turn encourages further progress. This is awesome! Adults, on the other hand, are far less likely to receive praise for their progress, relying on intrinsic motivation for learning the language. That is, their reward is the absence of punishment, rather than the receipt of a reward. For example, receiving the correct change for once when they go to the supermarket, or the absence of impatient abuse while purchasing a ticket at a train station in peak hour.

The science against this wives tale is overwhelming and you can read all about it on Benny’s blog. While I disagree that you can be fluent in 3 months, I encourage you to read his book as it is full of useful advice. Adults have the meta skills which allow them to learn anything faster than children. Memory tasks, sitting down with a teacher who explains tense and conjugation, comprehension skills. You have been to school, you know that sitting down and studying is the fast track to learning anything. You can read a book like Benny’s and change techniques when and how you want. In short, you have already learned how to learn, a child has not. This is you advantage.

A child’s advantage is their lack of pride. Without a doubt, the vast majority of situations a beginner finds himself in when immersed in a language, will make him feel small and stupid. People will have reactions to faltering ranging from taking advantage of your weakness (interrupting, mocking, dismissing, condescending) to sympathetically babying you along. While the later is preferable, both are not so great for your pride. The ability to poke fun at yourself is a huge advantage, but that only helps if you have the words to poke fun at yourself. If not you have to get used to awkward situation after awkward situation.

“You’re just choosing your company badly” I hear you say. If you are living and breathing the land around you, you can’t alway choose your company. You can’t choose your workmates, you can’t choose your classmates, or government clerks who decide your fate with a flick of their pen. In real life you can’t control ALL the people you interact with, and even if you could, people aren’t perfect, if I refused to talk to anyone who got frustrated with my shitty German, I would have no German friends. You have to get used to the feeling of uselessness in some very basic situations.

This is why I now have great sympathy for those old grandmothers who moved from Greece or Italy to Australia with their family, but never learned the language. They come under criticism from all and sundry for living in the country for 10+ years but never learning English.

Mama, I get it. I understand. It’s ok.

Imagine you have been the matriarch of the family your whole life, the top dog, the oracle, the pillar of your peers. Then all of a sudden you are forced to start speaking like a child. That’s a tough pill to swallow. It was and is for me and I chose to do it. So I have great sympathy for someone who has to do it against their will. It’s incredibly hard to forgo your pride so often. Your pride is delicate and important. And I’m not talking about macho pride, I’m talking about everyday, self-esteem.

So in summary, kids and adults learn new languages in different bubbles, but if you are an adult reading this, understand that you have the advantage of meta-skills but the disadvantage of pride and a lack of rewards. So, drop the ego and give yourself a pat on the back. You’re doing a great job!

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