Language Lab

I started getting more invested in language in 2014 when I set out to self-learn Spanish. My tool of choice was Duolingo, which featured a variety of exercises and has continued to evolve since then. Seven years later, I’m able to follow basic conversations and understand simple articles, but my speaking skills are practically nonexistent.

The arrival of my daughter D– gave me a chance to see how a child learns language. There’s a common trope that children pick up language faster than adults. Could that be true? Compared to other children I’ve dealt with at her age, D– seemed quite advanced in vocabulary and sentence construction.

At D–‘s stage right now, she can verbalize what she wants and how she feels, and can be quite imaginative and poetic with her words. (“The sky is crying; it’s broken.” “The moon is trapped in our house.” “I’m going to work on the tap-tap”, meaning the keyboard.)

The child’s advantage is, I think, that the language exposure is constant and tied to their needs and their play. Correspondingly, expectations are a bit lower, and in the case of D–, the threshhold of frustration is much higher. D– doesn’t mind being corrected, in fact, she seems to relish it.

One key technique of D–‘s is repetition. Everytime she comes across a new word, she repeats it at least three times. This is how she picks up the longer multi-syllabic words (“excavator”, “escalator”, “Jupiter”.) Conversely, my wife and I don’t shy away from using the correct word for things, as it opens up opportunities for D– to learn.

D–‘s natural approach to language is purely auricular — hearing and speaking. Now that seems pretty obvious it almost doesn’t need to be said. So it’s actually adult language learning (at least my approach to it) that has it upside-down, with its starting point being reading and writing. No wonder Plato was against the written word!

Extending that further, D– is also quite musical, and a lot of her learning is coming in through song. Her repertoire is extensive. She started with the golden hits like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, “Baa-Baa Black Sheep”, “Bingo”, and has since picked up many new ones like “Down by the Bay.” This also provides more opportunity for play, as she intentionally changes words of the song to match the context.

And finally, the constant close interaction my wife and I have with D–, especially in this time of pandemic confinement, ensures the empathetic dimension to language. It seems like a small thing, but emotion and feeling add further context to communication, more than words alone would ever convey.