Why Learning Like a Child Doesnt Work

If children and babies are so good at learning a language, why not copy them right? If you've been in the language learning community for awhile, then you're sure to have heard of the concept of learning like a child. It's often promoted as the "natural" way of learning. The whole concept of it is flawed however and shouldn't be taken seriously.

I'm not going to lie though, I fell for it. When I was learning Japanese years ago, I tried this method. I sat there and listened, listened, and listened some more. I listened to everything and anything I could. I really, really tried to be a child again.

It didn't work.

Problem is, I didn't know what I was hearing and would never know what was being said. It just wasn't going to work no matter how hard I tried. My brain only heard noise.

You're an Adult, Not a Child

Seems obvious enough huh? You're not a kid anymore. You're all grown up and you have skills that children don't. They do not have the ability to read and write yet, but you do. Why would you not get started on all skills of learning a language? Speaking right away, reading, and writing are all things you can do that children and babies cannot do at the beginning but you can, because you are an adult.

Children Take Years to Begin Speaking

You can learn and become semi-fluent in most languages within a year. Children take over a year to even utter a word and another two years to begin speaking full sentences. We as adults don't want to spend the time, nor do we have the time to be fully immersed like a child. We have other priorities to take care of.

This is good for us though because we can learn faster. Our brains are more developed. Try to teach a child something new and you'll see how much longer it will take than if you taught an adult. As the saying goes, you're never too old to learn something new (and faster).

Why Learning Like a Child Doesnt Work

Learning a Second Language is Different From Your First

There has been a lot of research done that shows learning a second language is different than your first. When children begin learning, they don't have another language getting in the way of it. They can't learn grammar, they can't translate into another language. All they can do is listen. They learn very differently because they don't even know a first language.

I mean think about it. All they can do is absorb the sounds. When you learn a second language, you already have the ability to speak, read, and write. Not too mention, you can do those things in another language.

Children Have Constant Stimulation

Have you ever thought about how much a baby is being bombarded by the language they're growing up with? They're constantly hearing it, being talked to and taught new words by their parents or teachers. They have consistent immersion in the language. Non-stop.

Most people don't have this constant immersion. You live in an environment surrounded by your language. You have to work in it, listen to it, and live it. No one is constantly talking to you in another language or teaching you like they teach a baby.

The only somewhat exception to this would be if you live in the country of the language you're learning. But still, it's not exactly the same thing.


With all being said, don't fall for this "natural" approach. It just doesn't work. You're an adult, you can learn faster, learning your second language is different anyway, and you don't have constant stimulation like a child.


What are your thoughts? Am I wrong or do you agree? Leave a comment and tell me!

6 thoughts on “Why Learning Like a Child Doesnt Work

  1. Junkie

    Always a good topic and inspired me to write about it too. You should go into language products that preach the "learning like a child" method and debunk them.

    1. Zach

      Post author

      Thanks for the comment!

      I read your post on the topic and you made some good points. I love the picture of the woman eating salad, "WTF does this mean?" haha. But anyway, that's a good idea and I might do some more posts on the topic. I can already think of some products that promote this method (I'm looking at you Rosetta Stone).


  2. anna

    Hi Zach,
    I think what people mean by "learning language as a child" is not merely listen to the language. But, more the process of it. It means, when we learn language we better involve all elements in language acquisition: listening, reading, speaking, and writing. This is as opposed to "grammatical approach" people used in the old times. That is, people learn the formulas/grammar first then speak. This approach is proven to take more time. That's what I understand.
    Good blog, though. Love it!

    1. Isaac

      Yes, I agree. It means learning it kind of like you learn your first language, instead of being bombarded with grammar rules and memorising notecards.

  3. ABStephenson

    I think it's more about the process than about "being a child". It seems to me that thought precedes language in that children start thinking before they start speaking (in the sense of mimicking the language they hear in their environment). So listening first makes sense, and helps attune the ear to the sounds of the target language, which results (in my experience) in an easier and quicker acquisition of a good accent. On the other hand, children (ie babies) start speaking on their own before they clearly begin to copy, so it makes sense (if you're going to be like a child) to start speaking from the outset without grammar. So, one can learn to read aloud before listening or vice versa, or use audio-only material. I used the grammar method combined with reading and memorising example sentences before using bits of an old linguaphone course to learn French, and within a little over a year could speak fluently. Based on this, I think that a combination of approaches works, which makes sense to me because you're aiming for the same thing whichever method you use, and as we have an innate capacity for language it makes sense to do what is natural for us personally - it's the language we want to learn, not the method. I'd be wary of any gimmick, and I don't think that self-regression is necessary - but it could make one readier to believe a glittery sales-pitch 🙂

  4. AJ. THUAN

    Read to understand the meaning of a sentence,
    then listen to it many times, carefully until you can copy the pronunciation.



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