Learning versus acquiring

In my opinion when you are talking to your child in a foreign language they are  not learning it,  but you are not teaching them. I would like to expand no a bit on this.

bilingual teen

When children get older another language will put them in a strong position and they will gain a wider perspective on the world.

Basically, you will be learning all your life. That’s true, you learn to tie your shoe laces, you lean to sit up, you learn to walk. But you are not learning the same as you do later in life in school. When you learn in school, you actually have to study. We learn through life, and many things we learn without studying, just by experience, some things, like Maths, History, etc we need to actually sit down and study. Unless of course you have a photographic memory and can actually remember things just by hearing them or reading them once. Lucky you!

Language learning is lifelong.

When you’re learning a language at school, you have to study in order to learn it! Okay, some people have the advantage of being able of remembering words and sounds quicker than others, but it doesn’t matter how old you are, if you have one to three hours of German, French, etc a week and the syllabus includes learning grammar, vocabulary, etc you actually have to study it to be able to remember it. A little kid of four will have it easier as he will remember the words easier. But of course the contents of the syllabus are very constrained, a list of colours, school materials, words for relatives, animals, a few songs and travel guide phrases are generally what they’re taught. What hardly constitutes speaking a language fluently!

Now, before I go rambling on, I’d like to talk a bit about acquiring. Acquiring a language is what we do when we are little, and we start listening to our parents, grandparents, childminders, etc from day one people talk at us, and from day one our brain starts taking new sounds in. We are acquiring the language, we are not “learning” it, we don’t go through lists of vocabulary or set phrases that we need to study.

Us, parents, are of course teaching the kids, the same we do when we say to the kid don’t pick your nose, or pointing at people isn’t polite. But of course, this is not “teaching” in the schooling type of way. So, basically if the father speaks one language, let’s say English, and the mother Spanish all the time at home, the kid will just grow up with both languages. The kid doesn’t have yet the same mental barriers to languages that adults have, embarrassment of saying something wrong, embarrassment of speaking a foreign language, they don’t think that speaking another language in an English speaking country is a waste of time because “everybody speaks English, anyway”. They just get on with it. They know that if they want food they have to ask mummy and mummy will only answer in Spanish, daddy will answer in English.

So, basically, when exposed to a language for long periods of time, ideally 24/7 kids will acquire the language. Which is different to the learning we do at school or in a formal lesson environment.

Ideally, the adult speaker of the language would be a native speaker, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be like that. If you speak French well, and speak to your child in this language your child will naturally “acquire” the vocabulary and structure of the language, without having to then go on to sit down and learn endless lists of vocabulary. Will he or she pick up wrong grammar and accent? Probably if you say things the wrong way, but you have to weigh the pros and cons. Would you have your kid speaking quite good French and able to communicate with native speakers, even making some mistakes and with a funny accent? or would you prefer have your kid to learn how to order food and say what he wears to school in French, and then changing to English because that’s all s/he remembers from school? I know what I’d prefer. I have a funny accent (read foreign) in English and I still make some grammar mistakes and use funny words sometimes, but I communicate fluently and I’m able to get jobs in the UK. So, who cares if I have a funny accent?

Yes, people will say to me, but you are a native speaker of Spanish, that’s easier, isn’t it. Probably. But I also speak French fluently, (with a funny accent), and I intend to speak (not teach, as I don’t intend to do grammar and vocab lessons in one hours slots!) it to my baby so she acquires it as she grows up. Crazy! I hear people say as they read this! Three languages! Yes, so what? In India for instance, kids grow up speaking two or three local languages, their brain doesn’t explode. “Why don’t you leave it to teachers in school? You have a funny accent in French.” I don’t want to leave to teachers, because teachers are also human and they aren’t gods. Teachers have funny accents as well, as most of them are not native speakers, and besides I don’t want my kid to waste her time learning long lists of words for things you use in the classroom or things you wear when on holidays. I don’t want her to have to do what I had to do, sitting down for long hours writing down grammar exercises and memorising rules.

At the moment, my baby is just a tiny one. She only uses crying for communication so far, which will be the main tool for quite a bit. But we speak to her meaningfully, her dad speaks to her in English and sometimes in Spanish (yes, I don’t care he’s got a funny accent) I speak to her in Spanish and French, and of course as we live in England she hears me speaking in English to other people.

At the moment, I have established some rules to myself. It may be a bit strange, but this is the first time I’ve done this, so bear with me. We have set days a week when we speak Spanish, and others when we speak French. When dad is home I speak to him in Spanish or English (depending on how much I know he will understand) and generally he replies in English (sometimes Spanish, we are also working on his Spanish). Baby has a few teddies already. We have a Spanish teddy called Pedro el Perro (Pedro the Dog) he only speaks Spanish, so it’s useless talking to him in any other language, he won’t understand. Then Beatrice Lapin is French, and she only speaks French. I hope that this teddy thing will work as a “marker” so baby starts realising, as soon as she is old enough to notice, that when we have Pedro out is Spanish time, and with Beatrice is French.

With people it will be easier, my family only speaks Spanish, so visits, Skype and phone will hopefully prompt her to speak Spanish. For French, I have a couple of French friends, and when she’s older I will try to find some playgroup in French. But that’s a long way away yet. At the moment our main goal is sticking to constant reinforcement of the three languages, talking in normal situations.

That’s all for now folks. This is just written from my experience. It would be great to hear about other people’s experiences.


  1. Thank you so much, this was very interesting. I was actually born in Spain ( not telling when though!) but was moved around europe and lastly settled in England when I was a teenager. I dont remember much of the few years I was in spain, but the delicious smell of spanish food always seems to get me going or something. It’s weird how I dont remember anything except the smells,isn’t it! I actually found a whole website dedicated to spanish recipes, which gave me great delight and thought I ought to share. Anyway, thank you again. I’ll get my husband to add your cast to my rss thing…

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