Saturday Spanish #4: Babies aren’t language geniuses

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There’s a common belief that children possess a unique ability to learn languages.

Somewhere around age 13, the theory goes, this ability dries up, leaving us all doomed to memorize verb conjugations for eternity. 

There is some research to back this up — the “Critical Theory Hypothesis” suggests that around puberty, the ideal window of brain development closes for language acquisition. 

And most people’s experience learning a second language backs this up.

But here’s the thing: children aren’t language geniuses. They just get lots of practice and have fun while they’re doing it.

Kids get context, fun, and repetition. Adults get rules and more rules.

Picture a father and daughter walking down the street. The daughter points a bus and says, “What’s that, Dad?”

The dad replies, “That’s a bus. People use it to go from one place to another.”

The next day, they see another bus, and the daughter asks, “What’s that?”

The dad says again — “Do you remember from yesterday? That’s a bus. People use it to get around town.”

The next day, the daughter is pointing at every bus she sees, announcing, “Bus!”, “Bus!”. At the same time, she internalized the way her dad explained what a bus was — the grammar he used.

Children don’t develop the ability to speak their native languages by learning skills one at a time, or memorizing rules.

Instead, they get massive amounts of exposure to the language, and piece together meaning through context and repetition.

Spanish isn’t math.

It’s not a series of formulas to be memorized, where there’s only one right answer.

If you treat it that way, your Spanish will always be handicapped by your desire to “get it right.”

Instead, focus on immersing yourself in Spanish

Children do have advantages that you don’t: they’re surrounded by the language 24/7, with patient parents explaining things to them.

But you have advantages that kids don’t: you have an entire language (English) and grown-up worldview as a frame of reference.

You don’t have to learn what a refrigerator is or what an opinion is — you just need the Spanish words for those things.

You can learn those words – and much more — by immersing yourself in Spanish from home.

You do this by watching, reading, and listening to content in Spanish that you enjoy (here’s a video I made a few months back with ideas for you).

To do this effectively, you need to do a few key things:

#1: Don’t try to understand everything. Listen to things with the goal of catching the general meaning and getting lost in the story.

#2: Don’t look up every unknown word. In the same vein, avoid the urge to look up every unknown word. Important words will appear many times and make themselves apparent.

#3: Surround yourself with Spanish. A child gets 24/7/365 exposure to their native language for years before they can speak in complete sentences. By listening to more Spanish, you’ll start to build an intuition for how it’s “supposed to sound”, helping you speak with less effort. 

Don’t believe the myth that babies and kids are master language learners and adults are doomed to slog through dictionaries and Duolingo forever.

Instead, lean on your advantages: you can choose what to learn, build on your English frame of reference, and immerse yourself in Spanish content.

When you do this, you’ll have more fun and develop a natural feel for Spanish.


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Hey there, I'm Connor. I help motivated learners speak Spanish without slogging through grammar books or tapping through every new app. I started Breakthrough Spanish to give more people the confidence and focus to learn effectively Spanish from home. Learn more about me here.

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