Depending on your source, you’ll hear or read that people need a minimum of 200-300 hours of exposure to a language to learn it.
For a working adult who tries to study a few hours per week in their spare time, this means anywhere between 1 and 2 years of regular study (assuming they are consistent, which is often not the case).
But children learning their native language when they grow up… get this much exposure in 2-3 weeks! This is the real difference between someone learning their first language growing up, and an adult learning a second language. The total hours of experience with the language is massively skewed between the two.
In his TEDx talk, Gabriel Wyner from Fluent Forever gives an entertaining example of this, and I recommend watching it. He’s also written a book about his experiences, which I enjoyed, but it’s hard for people with a demanding job or young family to apply the immersion he talks about, so it’s definitely not for everyone.
Apart from the total amount of time spent with the language, there are other differences between children and adults. The Ouino video embedded here summarizes it well. In particular, the lack of self-consciousness is a huge advantage. If there is one thing we could learn from children, it would be to not be so afraid of making mistakes.
This is something adults struggle with in general, with anything new they are learning. Dealing with it is a special topic in itself, which could make up a whole book.
Although we can learn, or even be inspired, by the way kids learn a language, it can’t really be the same for us as adults. We’re just too different and we need to learn differently.
We don’t have to try to replicate the experience of a toddler who lives 24/7 in the language (including dreaming while asleep). Instead, we need to have as much exposure to the language as we can.
This means not just attending a lesson once per week, but looking for ways to add the language into our life consistently. Doing a little bit every day really adds up. This can be:
- Using a mobile/tablet app that’s designed to give you 5/10/15 minute exercises every day
- Following a YouTube channel dedicated to the language you are learning, and watching one video per day
- Listening to a single audio lesson every day
- Reading a single paragraph or section from your course materials a few times per week
- Practicing speaking out loud while doing all of the above
You’d be surprised how these small efforts add up. Over time, this can become hundreds of hours of experience with the language, so don’t underestimate these approaches just because they seem so small and simple.