The Adult-Like Path to Child-Like Acquisition

If your goal is to become a high-level tennis player, then it makes sense to look to high-level tennis players for data on how to achieve that goal: How many hours do they practice each day? How often do they play in tournaments? What kind of cross-training do they do? Which styles are popular in this day and age? And so forth. In the same way, if you’re learning a foreign language, and your objective is to sound like a native speaker, then it makes sense to look to native speakers for data on how to succeed. Or does it? Many people within the language-learning community would push back at this moment, saying that acquiring a native language is a fundamentally different endeavor than acquiring a foreign language. According to such individuals, children and adults are different on a basic neurological level, and therefore what works for children won’t necessarily work for adults. When designing a method for adult acquisition, they say, it doesn’t make sense to look to children for inspiration.

Now, while it’s trivially true that it’s not practical for an adult to learn like a young child, for example by joining an elementary school class and interacting on a peer-to-peer wavelength with the students while having a home to return to where a mother reads them bedtime stories every night in their target language, this merely grazes the surface, when it comes to what it means to look to children for inspiration on how to acquire like a native. To be clear, my position is the following: Even though as an adult it’s not possible to implement the same superficial conditions that a child tends to end up in (e.g., many hours per day of immersion within the social setting of an elementary school, playgroups, and their family), it’s key to look to the underlying principles that make it such that those conditions lead to native-like acquisition. Ask not what surface-level conditions children find themselves in; ask instead what deep principles underlie the utility of those conditions. For example, consider that children memorize most of their new words within a social context that’s viscerally motivating to them. Their mother hands them a food they’ve never tried before, and then says the word for that food while they bite into it and experience the full depth of its flavor. Words acquired within social context that contains visceral emotion are much easier to acquire. The lesson isn’t to try to live like a child, but rather to put down the textbook and get out into the world, where you can memorize vocabulary within a viscerally motivating social context. The lesson is to figure out why child-like conditions work, and then implement as an adult the same underlying mechanisms, even if what’s on the surface looks quite different.

To give an analogy, consider that within the world of Alternative Health there’s a widespread tendency to make what we could call the naturalistic fallacy. Recognizing that sitting at a desk all day, eating sugar-laden desserts, and engaging in many other practices alien to our ancient counterparts, have dire consequences for our health, they conclude that unnatural foods and habits are bad, and that natural ones are good. They then turn into a man with a hammer, removing everything in their life that’s unnatural while implementing anything they consider natural. Now, while there’s no denying that this can be extremely effective in many cases, since humans are indeed meant to live more like hunter-gatherers than like accountants or other such modern people, there’s a key error that can happen when misapplying the principle that Unnatural Equals Bad and Natural Equals Good. For example, imagine that you live in a location where all of the available fruits, vegetables, and so firth come from farms with soil that’s depleted of the minerals and other nutrients that would exist in the soil of healthy natural habitats full of wild vegetation. A person blindly applying the principle that Unnatural Equals Bad might scoff at the idea of taking mineral supplements, as our long-past ancestors certainly didn’t pop pills every morning. Such a person may say that a healthy lifestyle would consist merely of a variety of whole foods, not realizing that consuming a mineral supplement in such conditions is essentially an unnatural solution to an unnatural problem (a USTAUP).

The naturalistic fallacy is dangerous because it can cause people to jettison key USTAUPs bestowed upon them by the unconscious wisdom of societal tradition, without also fixing the unnatural conditions which originally gave rise to the USTAUP. If you can eat an ample supply of plants grown in non-depleted soil, then perhaps you can also get rid of certain supplements which many people lean on. But until then, you may need the USTAUP.

Getting back to the topic of language learning, I’d like to say that many people make an equivalent error when thinking about how to acquire. They commit the naturalistic fallacy, thinking that just because natives acquire in a particular way as they’re growing up, we as adults should copy them. After all, the natural way to learn a language is to learn like a child, right? Natural Equals Good, right? The problem, however, is that acquiring a whole new language as an adult is itself an unnatural condition; simply trying to jam the child-like type of acquisition on your adult brain is akin to throwing away your mineral supplements without first procuring fruits and vegetables from a farm whose soil isn’t depleted. Many of the study methods that people use, such as spaced repetition implemented within software such as Anki, are essentially USTAUPs for the inescapable fact that you’re no longer a child. Unless you can magically turn yourself back into a child, you’re going to need certain adult study methods. You need a non-native-like solution to the non-native-like situation you’ve found yourself in.

Thus, standing on one side are those individuals who claim that acquiring a language as an adult is a fundamentally different endeavor than learning a language as a child, and that therefore it’s not useful to look to how natives acquire in their childhood when trying to figure out how to best learn in adulthood, while standing on the other side are those people who believe that to acquire the ultimate prize in language learning, that is native-like ability in all ways, one must learn like as a native does in childhood, for example by eschewing all classroom-like studying and instead doing a prodigious amount of immersion. However, standing in the middle are those of us who realize that both of these camps are in error. To stop looking to the mechanics of childhood acquisition for the deep answers on how to acquire a foreign language to a native level would be disastrous, but to cast aside all classroom-like study and dive headfirst into immersion would be falling to the naturalistic fallacy, since you would be throwing out all the USTAUPs without changing the unnatural conditions which originally made the USTAUP popular. In the middle stand those who recognize that the path to true success is analyzing how and what children acquire, and then coming up with USTAUPs that allow one to acquire as an adult what natives acquire as children.