Language learning

Over the Easter holidays, I decided that I wanted to learn Japanese. Before you say it, I know that sounds a bit random! I’ve been fascinated by Japanese language and culture for years now and I’m hoping we can visit there soon. So, I’ve immersed myself in the language. I started by buying some kanji and hiragama/katakana books (the way you write it), using Duolingo to practice character recognition and listening skills and researching podcasts and YouTube videos that will help me. As you can tell, I’ve gone all in!

Japan language learning books

I won’t lie, it’s really hard. I’m struggling with recognising and differentiating sounds. Also, the characters are tough to remember and I don’t think I could write any words down myself. My adult brain is finding the whole thing exhausting.

How do babies learn language?

This got me thinking about babies and language learning. Did you know that by the age of 2, children know around 550 words? After that they learn an average of 10 new words a day. Given all the other things they’re learning, I’m amazed they have time.

Babies are born ready to learn languages – it doesn’t matter which language, their brains are open to any communication. The process begins before they are even born. Studies have shown that babies prefer hearing stories that were read to them in the womb. They can also recognise voices they heard during their last trimester in the womb, especially their mother’s.

The critical first year

In a fascinating TED talk, Dr. Patricia Kuhl explains how babies learn language in the first year of their lives. During their first six months, babies can distinguish between sounds that are used in every language. At this point, they could take on any language they are talked to in. In the second six months, this ability begins to decline and babies start to hone skills in the language (or languages) they are exposed to. Our ability to learn a new language is at its peak in the first 7 years of our lives. After that, it declines rapidly. Which is why, in my forties, I’m finding Japanese so difficult!

Luckily, it doesn’t just stop at one language, babies will take on the sounds of all languages they are exposed to in those first twelve months. It does need a human presence to help babies retain these linguistic sounds, rather than simple audio or video input. In that first year, by talking, singing and playing with our babies, we’re helping them learn the basic sounds of our language. Fascinating stuff.

It’s really worth ten minutes of your time to listen to what Dr. Kuhl has to say

I’d love to hear your thoughts on language learning and if you have experience of being bilingual or raising a bilingual family. Leave me a comment below.

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