Learning a new language is like staring through a window at a whole new world.
I’ve been learning a new language while my one year old is learning English. Guess who’s ahead.
A few months ago, my family and I moved to Asia. I started learning a new language—one of those really hard ones. My wife and I get to watch while our baby learns language too. Our sweet little girl is just beginning to talk.
My Baby’s Better At This
I have spent hours and hours studying my new language this year. I’ve attended classes under native speakers. I’ve made digital flashcards with recordings and emotive images. I’ve practiced phrases out in the community. I have been living just shy of full immersion for months. But the truth is, I’m jealous of my daughter’s progress.
Sure, I can assemble simple sentences. My issue is comprehension. I’m told that my adult brain is virtually hard-wired to recognize only familiar sounds, namely the letters from A to Z. My mature American brain tries to fit other languages’ sounds into English categories, initially making it almost impossible to register my new friends’ unfamiliar sounds in their mother tongue.
My baby learns language better because her brain doesn’t have my restrictions. She can hear all of the sounds that my neighbors and I make. My mother-in-law came for a visit and observed that my daughter’s baby talk doesn’t sound anything like how my wife and her siblings used to babble. I’m convinced that my daughter is mimicking my neighbors’ speech alongside my own.
Language Recognition Comes First
For the first two weeks of my language study, I didn’t say anything. My language teacher would spread a bunch of pictures across the table. Then, my teacher would point to one and say the word in my target language. After some repetition and observation, my teacher would say a word, and I’d point to the associated image. I was learning to associate sounds with concepts directly, without translation through English. This approach came from babies.
Well before babies can speak, they learn language by observing others associate words with concepts. My daughter’s spoken lexicon mostly consists of “mom mom mom,” “dad dad dad,” “hi,” and “uh-oh.” (Being the clumsier parent, I’m pretty sure the “uh-oh” is my fault). But my girl understands way more than three words.
When I say, “Give that [messy, fragile, or dangerous object] to mommy!” she does it. When I say, “Don’t throw your crackers on the floor,” she throws them, immediately and with a smile. Babies understand more than they can say.
Iceberg! Dead Ahead!
Language that we “know” is like an iceberg. The words we can readily use in speech and writing are like the small precipice of an iceberg visible above the water. The bulk of our iceberg vocabulary isn’t visible from above. There is much more language hiding beneath the surface.
Throughout my language learning, I’ve been exposed to hundreds of words. They’ve all been added to my iceberg. I can recognize many more words than I can readily use in conversation. Other speakers say things, and I more or less understand what they’re talking about, even though I’ve never used those words myself. There are even a few words that I can say without knowing what they mean. All these words are in my iceberg; I just haven’t mastered them yet.
My daughter’s English iceberg is enormous even though she’s new at talking. Her younger brain is designed to absorb language, while mine has changed to accommodate other kinds of reasoning. That’s why my baby learns language faster than I do.
My Baby Learns Language Faster Than I Do
My daughter’s new favorite toy is a coffee can with a cross-cut hole in the lid. She pulls bright colored scarves out of the can one after another after another. The other day, my daughter extricated the final scarf and started to whine. My friend Sam decided to teach her some baby sign language. Sam modeled the “more” sign, tapping her left hand and right hand fingertips together until my daughter copied the motion. Sam congratulated her and immediately stuffed the scarves back in the can.
Moments later, my daughter had emptied the can again, and Sam modeled “more” again. This time, my daughter repeated the motion right away. She was beginning to associate the concept with the motion. This is language acquisition.
Now, just days later, my daughter is asking for more play, more food, and more bath time. She’s using language as a tool to solve problems. She’s inventing new ways to apply what she’s learned. My daughter feels more content. Her life is noticeably different for having learned new language. The results of my language learning efforts are far less tangible. I may have mastered a greater number of words and phrases than my daughter has, but she’s reaping way more benefit so far.
This trend ought to continue as my daughter grows up. Maybe she’ll be bilingual. If so, there will come a point in her childhood when her local language becomes better than mine. What a humbling and joyful day that will be!
For now, though, it’s astonishing enough to watch her ask for a few more Cheerios.