China Elevator Stories

3 things toddlers can teach us about learning a language

I watch my toddler son acquire language skills in two mother tongues naturally.


Ruth Silbermayr-Song


Seeing your child acquire new skills can be an eye-opening experience. One of the most interesting aspects for someone who grew up with only one language is to see how our son naturally learns both of the two languages he grows up with. Here are 3 things I have learned by watching our now 18-month-old son learn both of his mother tongues, Chinese and German:

1. Mistakes are your best friend

People often think that a young child that grows up with two or more languages spoken at home will learn those languages automatically and with ease. But that’s not true. You need to make a huge effort as parents, and the child will need to make a huge effort as well. The amazing thing about little kids is that they aren’t afraid of making mistakes. If they don’t pronounce a word correctly or don’t know a sentence structure perfectly yet, they just practice until they do, making a myriad of mistakes on their way. If you’re very self-conscious about making mistakes, don’t be! You’ll learn a language much faster if you’re not afraid of making mistakes. Here are two really funny mistakes I made learning Mandarin Chinese.

2. Practice makes perfect

Our son practices new sentence structures day in day out. If he wants to practice a Chinese sentence structure, he’ll switch to only speaking Chinese for a few days until he gets the hang of it. When he wants to practice a new German sentence structure, he’ll make sure to be around me as much as possible to practice it. He’s not afraid of making mistakes. He’ll just repeat new phrases or sentence structures until he masters them.

3. Conversation is key

Toddlers learn and memorize fast by having conversations. These days, our son even has conversations with himself to make sure he’ll perfect his conversation skills. It’s common to hear him say things like “Would you like to drink water? Yes, please” or “Let’s go for a walk. Okay”, usually telling us exactly what he expects us to do. Conversations help tremendously in learning a language well, and if you aren’t able to or don’t have the finances to afford a language partner, be your own conversation partner. As odd as that might sound, it will make you feel much more at ease using the language on ground.

What have your children taught you about learning a language?