I am often amazed at those linguists
who can speak multiple languages fluently.
I believe inherently they possess some special talents . In talking to a teacher who teaches elementary school Spanish in US, I was led to believe there are many little linguists living among us.
In her experience, children who come from a family where a second language is spoken are quicker at learning a third language. Interesting observation, probably with no scientific research whatsoever to back it up, but somehow I am not surprised.
How do kids learn a second language anyways, or better yet, a third or fourth language?
Take the ABC (American Born Chinese) children for example. To them, learning a new language is the equivalent of playing it by ear. They do that every day. And they do it boldly and fearlessly.
These children are not born bilingual. In fact they speak Chinese almost exclusively in the very first couple of years of their lives, under the care of their Chinese-speaking family.
They have great anxiety on their first day to day care centers because they don't speak English. That doesn’t last long. Before the day is over, these kids can already follow the basic directions like “go potty”, “wash your hands” or “lunch time”.
Once these kids start Kindergarten and begin to read and write in English, their English takes leaps and bounds. Along the way, they also pick up Spanish with ease, or French, or any other second language that is taught in the school. And best of all, they still converse with their parents and grandparents in Chinese.
Because they learn by listening to others, they sometimes make blunt mistakes. A typical example I enjoy retelling my friends is the phrase “Qi Ma”, pronounced as Chi Ma. In Chinese it can have two distinct meanings: a) Ride a horse or b) At least. The two phrases are written differently but they sound exactly the same. Therefore when a Chinese boy was told he has to “Qi Ma” (at least) swim for 10 feet, he would wonder curiously and loudly why he has to ride a horse in the swimming pool!
We think it is cute and laugh at his mistake. And what is his response? He laughs it off too, without a second thought. He will never, ever, think about digging a hole on the ground and makes it a hideout, as I am sure the thought would cross the mind of some adult language learners if they made such a laughable mistake.
Therefore, despite these little mishaps, these children continue to thrive. They grow up to be at least bilingual if not multi-lingual.
This is one of the few reasons that I really want to be a child again.