Tag Archives: language learning

Bilingualism: Language acquisition and language learning

Linguists distinguish between language acquisition and language learning. Children acquire language through a subconscious process during which they are unaware of grammatical rules. This happens especially when they acquire their first language. They repeat what is said to them and get a feel for what is and what is not correct. In order to acquire a language, they need a source of natural communication, which is usually the mother, the father, or the caregiver.

Language learning, on the other hand, is the result of direct instruction in the rules of language. Language learning is not an age-appropriate activity for young children as learning presupposes that learners have a conscious knowledge of the new language and can talk about that knowledge. They usually have a basic knowledge of the grammar.

From a neurolinguistic point of view, language acquisition and language learning are processed in two different ways in the brain. During early infancy, language processing – during acquisition – occurs in many areas of the brain. Only over time it gradually becomes concentrated into two areas: the Broca’s area, which is situated in the left frontal cortex and is involved in the production of the patterns in vocal and sign language, and the Wernicke’s area, in the left temporal cortex that is primarily involved in language comprehension. The Broca’s area is the one actively involved in language acquisition processes, whereas the Wernicke’s area is active in the language learning process.

English: Basic sketch of brain areas involved ...

English: Basic sketch of brain areas involved in language. Author: Reid Offringa creation date: 1/9/06 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


  • unconscious process
  • does not presuppose teaching
  • the child controls the pace


  • intentional process
  • presupposes teaching
  • the teacher controls the pace

When there’s a will there’s a way to become a multilingual

If you really want to become a multilingual, you will succeed. You probably know about the girl (Mabou Loiseau) who speaks 7 languages. This case did provoke all sorts of reactions from linguists, parents etc. who were questioning the way this child is acquiring all those languages and if this is “healthy” for her or not. I don’t think that I’m entitled to judge if this child is happy or not, but she surely is enthusiastic about learning the languages, otherwise she would refuse to do so. Like lovinglanguage said in a comment to my former post “How many languages are too many for a child?” : “children will [always!] question the utility of the language immediately”. In fact, teaching children “a bunch of languages is great, but recognizing that they will resist is a dose of reality”. I totally agree with this and can confirm by my own experience, that if a child doesn’t see the utility of a language, he will stop talking it. Therefore the “necessity of the languages [need to be] brutally clear” at any time.

I found this video about the twenty year old Alex Rawlings, explaining how and why he learned 11 languages. – I hope you’ll get inspired too!

5 tips for expats about how to encourage your child to learn the local language

If you are an expat and move very frequently, you can get tired to learn a new language every two or three years. This is more than understandable. You probably send your children to an international school because this makes the constant moving easier.

However, if you want your child to learn the majority language in order to be able to interact and play with the children in the neighbourhood or go to the local sport-clubs etc., there are many ways you can help your child. If  you already live in the country of the language your child should learn, it has the great opportunity to learn and use the language in its natural context. You don’t need to hire a teacher for this. You just have to provide your child with a social context that motivates and promotes the learning.

Whether your child is a toddler or an adolescent, there are some tips about how you can help your child to like and learn the local language. And you don’t even have to be good at languages yourself.

1) Learn the language yourself

First of all: be positive and passionate yourself. Take this great opportunity to learn the language alongside your child. Practice what you preach and be a good role model for your child. This is the magic key: if your child hears you speaking the new language, it will be more likely to speak it too. And be careful not to make any negative comment about the language or culture: if you dislike the language, your child will not be keen to learn it.

2) Rhymes, songs, audiobooks etc.

The repetition of rhymes in nursery rhymes, poems or songs is a very good way to get to know a new language. The sentences are often short, understandable and easy to learn by heart. It is a very effective way to absorb a foreign language for all children and adolescents (and even adults!). There are many audiobooks for every yeargroup. Choose translations of books or films your children like and already know in another language. Let them listen the stories and songs over and over again… Go to the local libraries. They often organize readings for different yeargroups. This is a great opportunity for your children to meet peers and have first contacts.

3) Dive into the culture

Taste the local food and surround yourselves with music, radio, TV, typical games etc. Go and visit musea, movies, theaters. It’s the easiest way to get a “language and culture shower” for yourself and your children. If you only stick to movies, music etc. from your homecountry or the countries you’ve been before, you’ll never really feel integrated into the country you’re actually living in.

4) The power of peers or the help of a babysitter

If your child is a bit older and knows already the basics in the foreign language, peers are the best way to practise the language. For younger children, parents often tend to hire babysitters in a language their children already know. If you want that your child learns the majority language, find a local babysitter.

5) Encourage your child and be positive

If you encourage your child and are supportive during the learning period, your child will make the best progress. As I already said in a former post about learning a language for expats: Passion is above all the most important factor in learning any language (or anything else in life…).