5 Baby Steps to Learn German as a Native: What We Can Learn from Newborns about Language Learning
Want to speak German fluently and with ease?
Have you tried to study a foreign language for a while and when you then see a little child that speaks it fluently because it’s his/her mother tongue, you go: “Ah, how is that possible? Why can’t I learn it with ease, just like them?”
After learning German for 5 years in high school and going to Germany as an Au-pair, I remember talking to my “Au-pair child” who was 6 at the time. I remember thinking, how is it possible that I spent the last 5 years of my life hardly studying this language, hours and hours of language instruction and practice, while she speaks it with no effort from the very beginning as a native?
The problem of adult learners
But this is what we do as adults, right? We stress about how much effort, time or money something costs us, and we measure ourselves against others. And in our eyes it always looks like everyone else has it so much easier than we do.
What we forget is that language learning, just like any type of learning, is a strongly individual process. That’s right:
1. It is a process. You have to develop and go through certain stages.
2. It is individual. Nobody else can do it for you.
So it’s time to stop stressing about why children have it so easy and start to learn from them.
Everybody loves newborns. No matter if you look at human babies, puppies, little cats, ducks or any other animals, we all smile at those little creatures in the initial phase of their lives, because they are so adorable!
Last week, we just had our little baby boy. And this inspired me to draw some parallels between the nature of human development and the process of learning a foreign language.
5 Baby Steps to Learn from a Newborn
Here are 5 simple common-sense rules that I believe will help you to learn a language from the beginning in a playful and natural way, just like children learn their native language.
1. Eat/Learn small portions. Often.
At the beginning your brain cannot take in huge amounts of information, just like a newborn stomach cannot process huge amounts of food. For this, you need to trust your nurturer to take care of you. In learning, that’s your teacher who knows how to produce digestible phrases and sentences, so that you get used to the language little by little before you can enjoy a great meal with friends.
2. Take many naps.
You will be tired. So you need to rest. Newborns sleep between 16-18 hours per day. This is about how you are going to feel when you arrive in a new country. Exhausted. Even without “doing” anything. But remember: That’s normal!
Just like the newborn brain needs to develop and grow, get used to noises, smells, voices and everything new, so does the brain of an adult in a new place.
You need time to adjust. The little things that you might or might not notice, from different doors, door handles, showers, and water taps to the way people dress, talk, and move. The outer surroundings from the city architecture, streets, and vehicles to nature, weather and food.
There might be smaller or larger differences at all levels and that will exhaust your brain. So being tired is normal. Allow yourself to rest, so that you can process all this new information and be ready to take in the next portion, the next day.
Note: In terms of language learning, it might take you up to a year or sometimes years until you get completely comfortable listening to native conversations and not feeling exhausted by the tempo they speak or overwhelmed by the vocabulary they use.
Remember: It’s a process and no one has ever been born already speaking a language – it takes years even in our native language before we can use complicated sentences. And in this regard, as adults we manage that even faster than children. But patience is important.
3. Don’t be afraid of your poop / mistakes.
With the small meals you will also need to change diapers often. It’s stinky, but necessary. Just like you recognize if a baby is healthy by its poop, you know that a language learner is on the right track by the mistakes s/he makes.
So don’t be afraid of your mistakes. They are a very natural and necessary part of processing new information and knowledge. In fact, if you don’t try on your own and you don’t make any mistakes, there is no way to learn and there is also no way for your teacher to recognize if there is a certain problem.
So don’t be ashamed.
Practice as much as you can.
Use your language and don’t worry if you are not quite autonomous from the very beginning. You will need people to correct you, just like a baby needs its diapers changed in order to be happy. It will not last for too long. I promise!
4. You need both of your parents / teacher and practice partner.
In the language process, your mom / main nurturer is your teacher who is going to feed your little body with knowledge and new information. Your dad is then someone who is going to play with you and to whom you can proudly demonstrate your progress and everything you’ve learned with mom during the day.
So you need also another familiar person, someone besides your teacher to practice with additionally. It will not only make it more fun, but will help you to gain more confidence in your abilities and still fresh skills.
5. Be curious, playful and friendly to others (relatives, friends or strangers).
At the beginning stages of a newborn life, there are many relatives: grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, neighbors and friends that are curious to meet the little one and share their excitement and love. But for a little baby, all these people appear as strangers. S/he is not used to that much attention, different voices, smells and behaviors.
Neither are we as language learners. Living in an unfamiliar environment can be very intimidating and even scary. But you have to remember, just like a loving family, we need this environment as a supportive structure to help us grow and socialize.
So although you might be scared to put yourself out there around “strangers”, think of them through the eyes of a little curios baby. We all love when they smile at us from their strollers, in their own goofy way. The open way in which babies and little children communicate with their environment and explore new things is the best way to learn.
So stay curious! Smile at people and take it as a game. There is nothing to lose. Only to learn. Chances are, people will appreciate your curiosity and be happy to help you, if you engage with them and ask for some attention. After all, we all were babies and we all love them. It’s the natural cycle of life.
So, those were the 5 Baby Steps of How to Learn German as Newborns Do.
I hope you enjoyed this article and that it helped you gain a slightly different perspective on your learning process. If so, share it with other “toddlers” who might need some encouragement and support in their first steps of “German” walking.
Stay curious, explore while having fun and don’t hurry to grow up.
Because one day you will! But before doing so, let’s collect many funny stories and experiences that will allow you to laugh and remember the initial stages of moving to Germany and learning that “funny” language.
Photo credits: www.freeimages.com