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You've probably heard that children have a natural ability to learn languages. For them it is literally child's play. This is because humans are born with special internal “wiring” in the language centers of the brain that literally drives them to learn to speak at an early age. Even infants who are born deaf still try to make talking sounds. You've probably also heard that once a child reaches a certain age, that window of opportunity to learn a second or third language closes, and as an adult it's much, much harder to pick up a new language, right? Wrong! Research shows that adults retain the hard wiring they used as children and can learn a second language surprisingly easily if they use good learning methods. In fact, in about six months an average adult can reach the same proficiency level that a child reaches in about five or six years.
Learning foreign languages is often difficult for adults because they don't use efficient methods for studying languages. Humans are programmed to learn to speak by listening and responding. It's essentially an oral and aural process. That's why it's so hard to learn a new language out of a book. If you want to learn to speak a foreign language, you will have much more success if you use a program that uses audio tapes or CDs. That way, you'll be using the language-learning hardware you were born with instead of some other learning strategy that is less suited to learning languages.
One advantage young children have when they are learning their first language is that they are in what language teachers call an “immersion environment”. Everyone around them is usually speaking the language and so their environment is saturated by it. If you are interested in learning a foreign language, look into programs that offer immersion teaching. One famous example of immersion language training are the Ulpan programs in Israel where people go live on a Kibbutz and combine learning Modern Hebrew with agricultural work. Common experience shows that someone with zero previous experience in a language can do remarkably well in an immersion program that includes some good teaching. It's not uncommon for someone to be able to get around and carry on extended conversations in a new language after just eight weeks in an immersion program. The problem, of course, is that immersion programs can be expensive. But there is no faster way of learning a language.
If you want to teach your kids a foreign language, the last thing you want to do is try to get them to sit down with a grammar and a dictionary (especially if they are younger). As adults we develop different strategies for learning and assimilating knowledge, but most of them aren't suitable for learning to speak a foreign language. If you want your kids to speak a foreign language, the best way to start is to get them into an environment where they hear that language spoken on a regular basis. Their natural language learning ability is geared to learning by listening and responding. If your kids are the right age, try getting children's books in that language. There are also lots of fun illustrated books that teach kids vocabulary words in different languages. Try to avoid an approach that requires them to grapple with grammatical concepts and rote memorization as much as possible. Later you can add that sort of thing, but your main goal is to get them started by helping them develop a feel for the language and become comfortable with hearing it, even if their understanding is spotty at first.
Remember that high school foreign language class? Remember how difficult it was? Remember any Spanish from it? Probably not too much. This is because too often foreign language classes in high school and college are not taught using a sound teaching method. Another problem is class size. Too many students and you spend most of your time hoping the teacher won't call on you instead of practicing and working with the language. But perhaps the biggest reason why people fail at learning languages is that they are using learning strategies they acquired as they grew up, but does not make use of the natural ability humans have for learning languages. A conventional grammar breaks down a language and tries to present it in the form of conjugation and declension charts in which students have to memorize forms, prefixes, suffixes, and so forth. Leaving aside that most people know next to nothing about comparative grammar, this method does not use the brain's natural ability to learn a language by listening and responding. Very few people can learn languages from a book, so if you've tried that without success, some form of lessons on audio tapes or CDs will probably work better for you.
If your kids are learning a new language, make sure they are surrounded with it as much as possible. Many bookstores sell vocabulary books with little cut-out labels to put on items around the house that give the name of that item in the new language. Depending on your child's age, look for children's books in the new language. Most of all, try to find something that engages something he or she is already interested in. For example, if you have a kid who is learning Spanish and who is also nuts about cars, consider a subscription to a Spanish-language magazine about cars or racing. Foreign language magazines are appearing more and more frequently in larger bookstores and better newsstands, and subscriptions can also be purchased on the Internet.
If you get started on a program to learn a foreign language, how long will it take before you can really use it? It depends on how much time you have to spend. The more time you spend exposed to your new language, the faster you'll pick it up. A quality immersion program can have you speaking a new language on roughly the grade school level or perhaps even a middle-school level in two or thee months. Working on your own with tapes or CD will take longer, but it isn't impossible for you to become good enough to carry on simple conversations, meet basic travel requirements, and avoid some of the more common cultural mistakes in three months or so. Two things to keep in mind is that you must expose yourself to your language and study it regularly and often. Study every day if at all possible. As you learn more of your new language, your ability to pick up more of the language will increase. You will be able to learn much more during your tenth week of study than you did in your first.
If you want to teach your children a foreign language as home—perhaps as part of a home schooling program—consider carefully in advance what it is you want your kids to be able to do. Some people may just want to gain basic conversational skills. Others are interested in learning a dead language such as Latin. Still others are just going for reading knowledge so they can follow events in foreign newspapers. Whatever your goals, you will have much more success getting and holding your kid's attention if you try to tie their new language with other aspects of their learning. Keep your eyes open for movies, restaurants, ethnic festivals or holidays that will help them see relevance in what they are studying. Kids become world-class learning machines if you can get their interest engaged.