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Why Kids Make Great Language Teachers Posted by on Dec 12, 2016 in Archived Posts

Young kids often feel no shame. They also feel no pity for shaming YOU. And that’s what makes them the perfect language learning partners.

Ah, kids. As one commenter on this comic so wisely put it, “wine and children produce the truth. And headaches.”

The great part about kids is that they usually have no filter. This is also a not great part about them, but as long as they’re not your kids, it’s a great thing. I have friends here in Berlin who are immigrants from other countries, but whose kids grew up here as locals, and they’re endlessly frustrated by their parents’ accents and grammar mistakes. Some of these children make a point of correcting their parents, and as a parent I can imagine this is fairly irritating after a while – or maybe not, maybe you can take it as an opportunity to learn your language better. I’ll find out soon enough, my wife is due at literally any moment now. (!!)

But if these kids are not your own, it’s a lot easier to take it in stride. You can take full advantage of their filterless commentary on your linguistic blunders.

As we grow up, we learn about shame. We learn why we should feel bad or socially out of place about lots of things – dancing around in public, talking loudly in libraries, bathing in your own dinner, etc. These aren’t rules we’ve decided consciously, they’re just the unwritten collective guidelines to identify whether or not we belong in society. And that feeling of belonging is very important. It’s a primal urge that drives much of what we do, from how we dress and act, what expressions we use and, of course, how we speak. So we learn fairly early on that it is not socially beneficial to speak the local language poorly, because it’s a sign that we don’t belong. This embarrasses us. We feel shame.

But we are also 21st-century smarty-pants monkeys who can self-reflect and realize when we’re doing things that make other people feel that shame – and we try to mitigate it. We often try consciously to include those who break the most minor of social rules, because we know the Golden Rule, and we know it’s not fun to be in their shoes. We feel we should accept them in our group despite insignificant flaws like pronouncing words incorrectly. We don’t want them to feel excluded for silly little things like that.

So in this modern society, we still feel embarrassed for not feeling included due to our accents and grammar, and we strive to become better language learners in order that we can better fit in. But we also try not to alienate outsiders with accent and grammar discrepancies, if only to help them try to fit in.

That leads to something no doubt every language learner has run into: people that don’t want to correct your language mistakes.

I’m certainly guilty of this. I don’t want to pick away at every little English mistake my Italian wife makes. Once in a while I’ll correct the larger mistakes, but at the end of the day, she’s still speaking perfectly intelligible English.

Still, I understand her frustration when she finds out I’ve been neglecting to correct her on something simple and small, which by using sends a small signal that says I’m not fluent. That’s not fair, is it?

Which brings us back to: children.

Young children don’t care about social rules because they haven’t learned them or, if they have, they don’t yet care about any but the most fundamental ones. Not only that, but young children who didn’t grow up multilingual often don’t understand what separate languages are. This is fantastic for any language learner, because they expect you to speak like anyone else they know – their parents, their friends, their teachers – and when you don’t, they’re happy to point that out. There’s nothing kids like more than loudly and publicly identifying mistakes that adults make.

And for a language learner, that’s the ideal teacher, isn’t it?

 

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


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