Language Learning: Are Children Like Sponges?

by Pam Echerd1

True or false?

How often have you heard the following statements regarding children and language learning? Are they really true or simply popular mythology?

Children learn new languages quickly. Actually some research indicates that adults learn more quickly, given the same amount of exposure time. What happens is that children often spend more hours interacting with people speaking the language, so their greater exposure time does result in seemingly quicker language learning than their parents.

Children learn new languages easily. This myth sometimes leads SIL members to carry a secret shame about their children’s lack of fluency in the national language or unwillingness to use languages other than their mother tongue. This can result in a niggling feeling that we must have done something wrong. Rather than examining the feeling, we often live with it (perhaps because there are other more critical areas in which we feel that same sense of not living up to expectations).

Positive reinforcement

Children are not indiscriminate sponges. They, like adults, learn languages best in an environment where learning enhances their self-esteem and reinforces their sense of who they are and who they are becoming. Children are also like adults in that some learn a new language much more easily than others.

English is, in most of the world, a high-prestige language. If this is the language of our home, the language of the schools, and the language we expect our children to use as adults, obviously there is a great deal of positive reinforcement for speaking English fluently.


If our friends in the host country tend to be from a higher socio-economic level, their children may value learning English more highly than our children value learning the national language, and the positive reinforcement will come from speaking English with peers rather than speaking the national language.

In a village situation, particularly among the boys, the national language may be the one the villagers most want to learn to enhance their own identities. In Papua New Guinea, for example, the boys may use Pidgin in their play rather than the village language, and translators can be left feeling uncomfortable that their children are not speaking the language they have come to translate.

Many SIL members live in Dallas for part of their training. Some parents are dismayed to hear their children picking up the local accent. Others are surprised when one child does and another does not. It helps to understand that these are clues to how much the child feels at home in his new setting. They may also be clues to what to expect when moving to another culture.

Extroverts tend to become comfortable by trying to communicate in the local language, errors and all. Introverts, on the other hand, seem to have a greater need to wait until they are comfortable before speaking.

If it is not working…

When you see one of your children resistant to learning a language that you think he should learn, don’t assume that he has a problem or that you need to be firmer. Instead, ask yourself why the child doesn’t feel that speaking that language is worth the effort.

For example, has he been in a setting where he was shamed for making mistakes? Does he sense that he would be disloyal to you? Is he trying to hang on to an identity he feels is threatened? Does an older sibling frequently receive praise for speaking that language well? Is there another language which gives him the communication opportunities he needs and at the same time provides more of a sense of self-worth?

Criticizing ourselves or our children with “oughts” will not help us or them become better language learners. Instead, checking to see why we or they are not learning as well as we had expected may teach us interesting things about who we really are and who we truly want to become.

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