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Second language acquisition and child development: a crossover (A to B)

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

A fundamental part of acquiring a new language as an adult is to accept this feeling that you have: you sound more dumb than you actually are in your first language.

If you have read our two previous articles in easy French Je parle comme un enfant de 6 ans: comment arrêter d'avoir peur et je parle comme en enfant de 6 ans: et c'est surement un peu vrai, then you already know that:
- you are not alone: it is a shared experience among all students of all languages at the beginner and intermediate level. There is nothing wrong with you!
- in all relativity, since it took you almost two decades to develop your first language to a point where you sounded smart in sound dumb for a year or two in French doesn't seem that bad.
- there is no easy shortcut.

But what is it, that makes us feel that way ? Well... I have a theory !

When an adult is going through the process of learning a new language, they have to go through roughly the same stages as child development, especially on their sense of self and access to autonomy.

Let's explore!

Total beginners: survival

The first intellectual task at hands for newborns is to build a sense of self: they are not the entire world, their caregivers are actually separate people from them.
As a newborn-in-French, you need to realize that your first language is not the one-and-all language; other languages are separated from it. You are struggling to understand -truly understand - the level of alterity you need to reach in order to accept that English and French are different languages.

Just like a newborn, total beginners students have no idea of what they hear, how to break down the sounds to form words, how to put them together in order to create meaning. You have things to communicate but do not know how to.
You rely entirely on your caregiver to survive: your teacher.

Everything is absolutely terrifying and exhilarating at the same time!

The goal is, for you, to be able to express very limited sentences and to survive in French. You will learn how to:
- hear, differentiate, and classify the sounds and letters of French,
- differentiate and classify the words of French, and then organize them in your very first short sentences,
- disclose your identity,
- find your way in time and space (yes, les jours de la semaine and les prépositions de place)
- express what you want, need, can, have to do,
- describe briefly things, people and places that are in your direct environment: la maison, la famille, le travail.

You are the center and the limit of your French world, and you cannot go any further than that, just like an infant.

A level : primary school developments

Little by little, you are becoming a little kid:
- you are learning how to walk, but you keep falling. You cannot go really far without a caregiver,
- you can hold a fork and eat on your own, but still need someone to prepare the food and cut the big pieces for you. Your teacher will do that for you.

As an adult A-level, you are producing simple sentences, with lots of mistakes. And it's ok!
It is exactly where you need to be.
But it is frustrating: you are very limited, and, just like a 6 years old, you are dreaming about autonomy!

Because A is a level with plenty of growth, you are discovering rules, systems, you are now able to use what you already know in order to understand more complex concepts: for example, you are able to use le passé-composé to understand how to build le plus-que-parfait.

Just like a kid's relationship to the world is evolving, your abilities with French are widening your horizons. You are learning to:
- project yourself in the past and in the future
- include others when you speak (yes, les pronoms compléments)
- compare
- ask precise questions

You are starting to be able to interact with people, but you are still very shy about it, terrified of the idea that something might happen that you haven't seen in the controlled environment of the class yet.
You don't feel resourceful enough quite yet to undertake a full conversation with francophones.
Most of the time, you can hear words, but you have a hard time processing them fast enough to fully understand a conversation, let alone to jump in it!

Congratulations, you are now, a pre-teen! (*all awkwardness included*)

Intermediate (almost B) level : a roaring teenage!

Come next the teenage years, in all their glory:
- you have more autonomy, but your representation of what you actually can do differs from reality.
- there is nothing more important for you than to be able to express your singularity (yes, giving an opinion and learning about subjonctif)
- while, at the very same time, being accepted by your pairs: le club cool des bilingues.

This created frustration and, yes, rebellion.

The frustration reaches its peak: it has already been a year you are learning French...and you're still not able to express yourself the way YOU want.
It's unfair! It's too hard! No one understands you! ...ahhh l'adolescence!

In class, you will rebel: subjonctif is dumb! Pronoms relatifs don't make any sense! Why is French so hard !
It's ok, a good teacher will know how to receive your frustration.

Your job to stop resisting.
Once you stop resisting, congratulations: you are a B!!

From B to B + : your formative years!

Remember your first years after high-school ? Wether you went to University, took a year off to travel the world or started working right away, you experienced this disappointing feeling that, while you thought education was actually just started ?


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