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Do children really find it easier than adults to learn a language? With help from Bob Marley and The Wailers!

Date posted: Sunday 17th January 2016


One of the biggest myths in language learning goes like this: ‘I am an adult trying to learn a foreign language. I find it difficult. Children find it so much easier than I do. This is because young children learn differently than adults.’ This is just not true.

We expect most children by the age of three and a half to be talking fluently: with pronunciation that is relatively easy to understand, using quite long sentences and with an ever-growing vocabulary. But adults who have attended a foreign language evening class once a week for three and a half years will complain that the reason they are not totally fluent is because they are ‘just no good at learning languages’. Their failure to reach a ridiculously overoptimistic target is used as conclusive evidence that proves the ‘children are better than adults’ theory. But the adults are not being fair on themselves.

Here are some facts about young children learning their first language.

Here are some facts about adults failing to learn to use a new language

The only true way to learn to communicate confidently and fluently in a new language is to move to the country where it is spoken, and spend time working there and socialising with native speakers. Then, exactly like any child, you will be immersed in the language, will be using it socially and meaningfully and you will be fluent in three and a half years. Assuming, that is, that you are surrounded by people who love you, are good listeners (respond to your message and not your grammar and pronunciation, and answer your questions), sing with you, laugh and joke with you, teach you local slang and swear words, share daily routines and practical activities with you, cook, knit, go to football matches and share meals with you (Going to bed and waking up with the person who is that great listener is a bonus, but not essential.)

But what if you can’t go and live and work in Spain, or France or Japan?

Keep going to the evening classes. And find some songs in the language that you really like. Listen to them again, and again and again. Find out what the words mean. Soon the words will be swimming around your head, and begin to make sense. Trust me… this really works. Watch DVDs of good films from your new country. Perhaps it goes without saying that falling in love with someone from that country will have a massive impact on your language!

Do these things and you will be learning the language in exactly the same way as young children. You will begin to hear key words and phrases and your understanding will increase rapidly. These key words and phrases will become fixed in your mind and gradually you will start to use them when talking with other people. At first the new language will seem incomprehensible and you can only use one word at a time. You will feel frustrated and tired and angry, because you can’t understand and make yourself understood in social situations, (you will be feeling, in effect, just like the average two- year- old). But suddenly you find that your understanding has increased, your vocabulary has mushroomed, and you are able to hold simple conversations (you will be like the average three- year- old). With continued exposure -maybe reading the local paper every day, listening to the radio, going shopping, watching the news – things really start to fall into place and you can begin to think about grammar and pronunciation in a more systematic way (like any five- year- old).

In other words, if your world is as predicable and full of love, friendship and fun as a child, you will maximize your language learning.

But where does Bob Marley come into it? Well, I’m running English conversation classes in France for adults. I base each session on subjects that the students are interested in, AND KNOW ABOUT ALREADY. Each week I make a video of part of the local area, and when we watch the video I ask the students to listen out for one word they already know, and one that they don’t understand. We feed back as a group and discover a whole world of new words that are meaningful. . We sample food from the region, as well as delicacies from the UK like Marmite, tea with milk, scones, baked beans, Ambrosia rice pudding and British cheese (with biscuits, naturally). Each week we listen to a popular song in English. We talk about the story of the song, look at key vocabulary and lines, and sing along as best we can.

At first, everyone was very sceptical: “Why don’t we study grammar?/ When are we going to focus on pronunciation?/ It’s so difficult for adults and much easier for children.” But gradually the students are using the language they have learned in the classes, and reconnecting with the English they learned at school. And yes, it does help adults to sit down and study grammar, but only after they have developed a good ‘ear’ for the language and are really enjoying exploring what makes the new language ‘tick’ (including slang expressions and quirky sayings).

One of our favourite songs to study has been Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry. This was a voyage of discovery for me too. For years I’ve been puzzling over lines like ‘And we’ll cook cornmeal porridge, which I’ll share with you.’ ‘Ubba ubbaservin’ the hypocrites’ and ‘logwood burnin’ through the night’ And what does ‘No woman no cry’ actually mean? Is it ‘Don’t cry because you don’t have a woman’? Or could it be ‘You don’t have a woman, so you won’t be crying’? Or possibly ‘Don’t cry, (my) woman’? To find out the answer visit

No woman no cry (Eat cornmeal porridge instead)

So what do you think? Is language learning easier for children?

Take care out there.


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2 responses to “Do children really find it easier than adults to learn a language? With help from Bob Marley and The Wailers!”

  1. simon marley says:

    Wise advice Michael. The voice of experience. I visited a school in Malaga, Spain which has immersed its students in learning English. They receive half their lessons in Spanish and half in English. I saw an art lesson delivered in English. The students were expected to communicate throughout in English. I spoke to several thirteen and fourteen year olds who were confident enough to chat to me.

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