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How do we learn languages?

We may not remember our first words yet a lot of our first language/s acquisition was influenced by many factors around us. Starting from the environment we grew up in, the country we were raised in and the language our parents/relatives spoke to us. Later in life, school in line with the government dictates which languages we should learn and what should be the focus. Frankly, we only have a choice when it comes to language learning in our adulthood. Let’s explore how we learn languages and how we can keep up with languages.

Learning as babies

According to research, we learn best as babies. Babies are referred to as sponges who can take on any information. However, some are of the opinion that we cannot put too much on our children and ‘confuse’ them with languages at this early stage. As Cenoz (2009) mentions in relation to children with Basque and Spanish, the introduction of English does not hinder the development of Basque and Spanish. One of the approaches to raising bilingual children has been that of one - language one-parent strategy (OPOL) where one parent speaks one language and the other parent another language as Lammerskötter (2009) explains. However, more recently this theory has been disproved by saying that it is better to use each language depending on context. (Morgan, 2022) For example, reading bedtime stories in one language and playing in another or mixing different languages. In essence, this is how children become bilingual or, what’s even more relevant today, multilingual.

Nowadays, as we travel more and have more freedom of mobility in this globalised world, our children are more often becoming multilingual. Parents have an important role in this as it will determine how proficient children will become in a language later on. As mentioned by Morgan (2022), “In 2021 there were around 6 million people with non-British nationality living in the UK”. This suggests that we are increasingly becoming ‘superdiverse’ (Morgan, 2022). This means that we need to be aware of what works and how it works to successfully raise multilingual children.

Learning at school

In many countries, the phenomenon of multilingualism still has a long way to be developed and integrated. There are a number of approaches to bilingual education, however, it is becoming apparent that we need new strategies to ensure children keep up with their heritage languages as well as any additional languages they learn. According to research, the use of children’s home languages in the classroom helps them acquire additional language (Potowski, 2013) as well as make progress and contribute to well-being at school (Foster, 2019). Foster (2019) emphasises that teachers need to be trained to embrace multilingualism in schools, they need resources, strategies and time to be able to adapt their teaching to multilingual children. It is wonderful to see that this is starting to happen in some countries, however, there are still some countries with language policies in place that somehow misinterpret the idea of multilingualism in classrooms. The European Commission investigated linguistic diversity in Europe (LINEE 2006 - 2010) and found that “Estonian

officials stress the learning of the languages, while for Lithuanian policy-makers multilingualism boils down to learning Europe’s major languages, i.e. what they call plurilingualism, but in reality, it means English.” (Karlova & Praze, 2008) It also refers to the problem that relates to power between languages and nations. (Karlova & Praze, 2008) This is often a challenge as many may think that solely English should be used in English language classes. Until recently, my view on this was very similar, however, I understood how important it is to embrace other languages in English classrooms as it not only helps with the understanding of content but also promotes diversity.

So, what’s the best way to learn English at school? Firstly, it’s important for teachers to understand how English is used and bring authenticity to their classrooms, so that students are motivated to learn. The way I was taught certainly does not mirror this. Unfortunately, teachers are often constrained to using textbooks which are often outdated and do not reflect everyday language concepts. Another issue is that at school we are taught in order to pass exams and not to communicate in everyday situations. Only in the latter way students are able to see the real use of language and therefore, learn more willingly. Nevertheless, our schooling experience determines our motivation for future learning.

Our choice

We often realise that learning foreign languages is important at a later stage in life and many of us are told it is too late to learn. The truth is - it is never too late! As Steve Kaufmann (a polyglot) mentioned in his video ‘Does language matter?’ age is largely in your mind and adults tend to get ‘easily embarrassed, too worried and they think they can’t do it’ (Kaufmann, 2012). I completely agree with his perspective on this issue as, based on my personal experience, it's all about a person's attitude to language learning. Firstly, it is important to find motivation, to find a reason why learning a particular language will be beneficial. Sometimes it’s related to work or studies, other times to family, the country you live in or simply personal interests. Whatever it is, once your goal is determined, you’re halfway there. I was lucky to move to the UK when I was a teenager, which was my ultimate goal of becoming better at English. In another, very interesting video, Kaufmann talks about his experience with learning languages and strategies to do so. (Kaufmann, 2020) I am going to relate to the concepts mentioned by Kaufmann and explore them with my own examples. According to Kaufmann (2020) there are three keys to success in learning any language:

  • The attitude of the learner

  • Time spent with the language

  • The ability to notice

I have already mentioned attitude as one of the most important factors. There is no point in learning a language if we are simply not interested in it. At school we may be forced to learn aspects that are not attractive to us, however when we choose to learn a language we should make it attractive to us. Connection with content will often help here, such as the history of the country where language is spoken (Kaufmann, 2020).

Next concept is related to time spent with the language. We need to accept that it will take time to learn another language, but also it’s important to surround yourself with the language by listening or reading as Kaufmann (2020) mentioned. Personally, I know four languages fluently. How long did it take me to learn? Well, I’m still learning. I often find that students know how long it will take them to learn, master, and improve a language. This question is impossible to answer as everyone learns differently and it depends on the time you dedicate to a language. Language learning does not happen automatically, it requires time and effort. Another challenge amongst adult learners is the notion that we want to be ‘perfect’ from day one and cannot make mistakes while speaking. This is not a correct approach to learning. Making mistakes is part of the learning process and should be embraced. I presume this mentality is a mix between personality types and the way we were schooled. The idea of being judged on mistakes and not being accepted may be part of it. On the contrary, we learn through mistakes and anyone should view this as a positive in the language learning process.

Last, but certainly not least is the ability to notice. Once you begin learning a language you will start seeing the similarities and differences to your first language and this will help with the learning process. It is an important factor in the language learning journey. The language you learn may be of the same family of languages, which may help you understand grammar for example. Yet, sometimes the language family will be different and therefore it may be more difficult to relate to but it’s vital to notice these differences. Should we use our first language while learning another? Absolutely, in fact, it will help you notice similarities and differences as well as understand difficult concepts in another language.

To sum up, we are constantly faced with challenges when learning other languages but it’s crucial to understand many factors involved in language learning. From babies to adulthood, there are a number of aspects which determine our ability to learn a language, however, it is all about the right attitude, starting from parents, and teachers to our own notion of acquiring a language. It isn’t easy to become fluent in a language. We need to understand this, take our time and not worry about making mistakes as it may not only hinder our motivation but also change the way we look at language learning. All in all, language learning should be a positive experience that will improve our lives and make us look at the world from a different angle.


​​Cenoz, J. (2009). Towards Multilingual Education: Basque Educational Research from an International Perspective.Chapter 9, 189-232. Bristol, Blue Ridge Summit: Multilingual Matters.

Education Talks | Multilingual classrooms: the new reality of urban schools. Nell Forster (2019). [YouTube Video]. In YouTube.

Karlova, U., & Praze. (2008). Challenges of Multilingualism in Europe Core findings of the LINEE Network of Excellence.

Language Learning - Does Age Matter? Steve Kaufmann In YouTube

Luca Lampariello. (2020). How to Learn Any Language - Interview with Legendary Polyglot Steve Kaufmann. In YouTube.

Morgan, E. (2022, September 4). Britain’s multilingual children: “We speak whatever language gets the job done.” The Guardian.

TEDx Talks. (2013). No child left monolingual: Kim Potowski at TEDxUofIChicago. In YouTube.

The one parent one language rule | Raising Bilingual Children.Rosario Then de Lammerskötter (2009, July 27).


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