It is understandable that many people believe that if you grow past the “language window”, that you’ll never be able to truly learn a new language as well as a native. However, it turns out that this so-called “language window” from ages 2-7 is for language in general. That is to say, if by the age of 7 you haven’t learned any language at all, you will likely have not adequately developed the “language module” in your brain, (more on that in a later article). However, if you are reading this, then you did learn at least one language.
This is not to say that children don’t have some advantages. For one, they are not afraid of making language mistakes. Children say sentences with bad grammar and bad pronunciation all the time, and guess what… they don’t care! This doesn’t make them feel bad about themselves, question their inherent value as a person, or project their mistakes onto others. They just move on. Later, they hear someone saying something right and subconsciously change their way of speaking.
All this said adults have the ability to change this habit of self-deprecation. When learning a new language, remember that you are of course going to make a lot of mistakes, and mistakes are not only unavoidable, they are useful for noticing where you need improvement. Make fun of yourself. Laugh it off. It genuinely doesn’t matter. Besides, if you are learning Chinese, people around you are impressed that you are trying at all, as you should be.
Kids have another advantage over us over-stimulated and fully developed homo-sapiens, which is the unavoidable nature of their mother tongue. They have no frame of reference, so the ceaseless desire to be social that seems pretty inherent in all of us only has one outlet, mimic the life givers! They have no other language that they can use to talk to friends, watch videos on the internet, read books or any other means to satisfy their boredom or desire for social acceptance. The basic motivation is what drives them to pay attention, and the fact that they don’t know another language helps avoid distraction.
So what does this mean for adults? Well, the conclusion I draw from that is not that we aren’t as good at learning language as compared to children, but rather that we have too many things calling for our attention. If, suppose, you were able to surround ourselves with Chinese all the time and not be distracted by our native languages, there is no reason to believe we would learn any more slowly than a child would, in fact we would likely be able to learn faster. Why would you do that though? Well that’s why you always want to be very clear about your motivation for learning Chinese. You can do anything with your life, but you’ve made this particular choice. It’s a great choice, but you need to be clear to yourself about what is driving you to succeed at this project. If that motivation is clear, the decision to surround yourself with Chinese and NOT be distracted by your native language will be natural. I recently did a program called “The Future Authoring Suite“, and I can’t recommend it enough. It asks you questions that, if answered thoroughly, will help you articulate what is motivating you and how to get there.
Kids have some advantages, but in the end we have the potential to learn at an even faster pace. We have past experiences we can glean from. We have a fully developed brain. We also have a lot of distractions. Find the reason that makes those distractions not worth it, and you’ll be communicated in Chinese before you know it.