“Even experts don’t know how children learn languages”/ “Ani experti dodnes nevi, jak se deti vlastne uci jazyky”Language experts still don't know how children learn languages | Czechmatediary
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“Even experts don’t know how children learn languages”/ “Ani experti dodnes nevi, jak se deti vlastne uci jazyky”

toddler flick image After a very heated discussion in the comment section of the post on “ teaching my daughter Czech”, I decided to ask an expert about this particular topic and emailed Jamie. Jamie has a MA in Linguistics from Wayne State University.  He has taught linguistics there and at the University of Michigan – Dearborn.  He has  taught ESL to adults for 17 years, and he has also taught German and a little ESL to children.Here is his very educated answer which will put many of us to rest:

CZ: Jak vestina z vas videla, posledni clanek o uceni me dcerky cestiny vypoutal vasnivou diskusi. Nedalo mi to a zanedlouho pote jsem zkontaktovala experta na toto tema – Jamese. Jamie obdrzel  MA v Linguistice od Wayne State University, kde ji take posleze ucil. Tento predmet vyucoval take na Michigeneske universite v Dearbornu. ESL (English as a second language) pro dospele uci jiz 17 let, ma ale take zkusenost s ucenim nemciny a  ESL pro male deti. Toto je jeho odpoved, a myslim si, ze mnohe z vas nejen ze prekvapi, ale take potesi:

Question (Tanja):

Hi Jamie,

maybe you can help us put some light on this since you are the “man” when it comes to learning languages:
A lot of my readers are young Czech moms living abroad and they want their kids to speak Czech. There are two camps of thought among us, however. Those moms that say “you have to speak Czech to  your child at all times – in front of your foreign husband, relatives and friends” and second camp that says “You talk to them Czech most of the time but when your foreign relatives and friends are around you speak their language”. I belong to the latter camp. In my opinion it’s kind of inconsiderate to do that. Plus, it takes away those great moments of togetherness that you share with your non-Czech friends and family. What do you think?

Answer (Jamie):
I doubt these women are experts in developmental psycholinguistics, so their opinion, and their passion for their opinion, probably arises from other factors. It could be from folk tales about how children best learn languages, but it could equally be due to a “cesky mindrak” (Czech comlex), resentment of their own foreigner status abroad, resentment of their husband’s relatives, over-possessiveness of their child and a host of other things. I have seen women from other countries behave in weird ways, linguistically and otherwise, because they resented being ethnically outnumbered by their husband and his kin, so they create another little Czech or Romanian or whatever, so that they won’t be alone.

The fact is that even experts don’t know how children learn languages or what approach helps them most. There are some things we do know, however:

1. Research shows that teenagers and adults learn language faster and better than small children. The idea that toddlers learn language quickly and effortlessly is based on an illusion. Consider how much language exposure and practice a typical toddler gets every day, and realize that an adult would have to study five hours a day for 14 years to get the same amount of practice that a child gets by the age of 4.

2.  One reason that small children are slower at learning languages than teenagers and adults is that they still haven’t learned to segment the world yet. They have to learn which person is mama and which is dada; where the arm ends and the hand begins; what shade is blue, what shade is green and what is in between; and thousands of other things. This is a huge task that people don’t have to repeat when learning a second language after they’re a bit older.

3.  Because the cognitive workload for toddlers is so huge when they are learning to speak, a child of 5 or 9, who has already learned one language, is liable to learn almost as much in one summer of immersion with grandparents and cousins as he is from nine years of Mommy talking and reading to him back in the States. You can see this with the kids of immigrants. One of my friends brought her son from Russia when he was 9 and knew barely a word of English. After three months in an American school (but still a Russian-speaking home), his speech sounded like a native-born American, except for an occasional pause when he didn’t know the right word or idiom. Within a year, he was indistinguishable from a native speaker. I’ve also seen this in the families of company employees whose children were as old as 15 when they arrived.

4.  Language learning doesn’t only involve intellectual factors, but also emotional factors. No matter what the mother does — speaks her language only, or switches to English around her husband and family — the child will not learn to speak the mother’s language if he doesn’t want to. Some kids reach a rather high level of fluency in the mother’s language but then later just shut down. There can be various reasons a child will stop. In no particular order, they include:

a) He sees no good reason to know the language.
b) He thinks using the language marks him as “different” and doesn’t like it.
c) He feels that using the language creates a social separation. If speaking the language makes him feel less close to his father, his father’s family, neighbor kids or other people who are important to him. If he feels that to interact with loved ones, he has to keep stepping in and out of the language cocoon his mother puts him in, then he’s liable just to speak the other people’s language.
d) The kid is just not attracted to the cultural associated with his mom’s language. If he prefers Sponge Bob to pohadky, he’s liable to stop.

Any of these factors — and others as well — are likely to arise no matter what method the mother uses. All you can do is try your best, and hope the kid takes to the language. If he doesn’t, it won’t matter if you speak your language to him all day, he just won’t cooperate.


Here is the list of books that Jamie recommends for us to read in case we would like some further information on this subject:


PS: You can finish this particular discussion at the forum.

If you liked this post buy me a coffee! (Suggested:$3 a latte $8 for a pound) Thanks!

54 comments… add one
  • Tanja August 26, 2010, 11:31 pm

    Isn’t that crazy?? I know, that’s why it’s nice you can block these types. One thing is to disagree and another thing is to be completely venomous about it.

  • Joyce January 15, 2012, 10:38 pm

    Can you help me to find any school, college, kids camp, … where we can learn Czech anywhere in the US, other than flying all the way to Czech?

    We live in CA but have hard time to find a place to learn basic Czech.

    Thank you!

  • Tanja January 21, 2012, 5:57 pm

    Hi Joice, sorry I don’t 🙁
    Everyone is waiting for the Rosetta Stone to come up with the Czech language edition but still nothing!

  • Jamie January 21, 2012, 6:33 pm

    I don’t think Rosetta stone is all that effective anyway.

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