7 year old speaks 5 languages

Meet my friend Yukine.

She’s 7 years old and speaks 5 languages: English, Spanish, Japanese, German and Sign Language.

When I visited the Canary Islands recently, we sat down for a chat, and I asked her about her languages and what she likes about each of them.

Now, it’s a common myth that children are much better language learners than adults.

Unfortunately, this is a myth that’s perpetuated wherever you go, and is often used by adults to justify not trying so hard themselves…

Children just soak up languages like a sponge, but it’s too late for me now.

When you watch this video, you may find yourself feeling the same thing.

But I want you to look a bit deeper into exactly how Yukine has managed to learn these languages, because there’s a very important lesson in there.

How a child can learn 5 languages

Here are the facts:

  1. She lives in Spain
  2. She speaks Spanish and Japanese at home with her parents
  3. She attends an English medium international school
  4. The school has a language focus to it, and runs a number of German classes as part of the curriculum
  5. She also takes regular extra-curricular sign language classes at the school, and has done for a while

Also:

  1. She visits Japan for 2-3 months every summer and attends Japanese summer schools whilst she’s there
  2. Her uncle and cousin, who she sees regularly, are native English speakers

So, has she just “picked up” all these languages?

Absolutely not.

Children vs. adults

Whether she knows it or not, Yukine has accumulated 1,000s of hours doing the exact things that result in successful language learning.

It’s no accident.

  • For years now, she’s been spending the majority of her waking hours learning or speaking one of her 5 languages. 
  • She uses 3 languages regularly with the people she loves.
  • She takes regular classes in the other 2 (and will be for years to come).
  • The people around her understand the importance of learning languages, and are incredibly encouraging and supportive. 

As regular readers of the blog will know, these are exactly the same success factors that I spend my time encouraging people (i.e. adults) to go after…

  1. Spend time on your languages every day…and keep it up for years
  2. Speak regularly with people you like
  3. Be clear why you’re learning, and stay motivated by surrounding yourself by the right people

It really is no different whether you’re 7 or 70! 🙂

Of course, the big advantages that kids have, are plenty of time on their side, and an unquestioning attitude, that means they’ll just do anything.

Adults tend to be busy, and will often sabotage their progress by demanding “progress now!”, getting frustrated, and moving on to the next new thing.

So, think about how Yukine has learnt her languages.

Then, compare it to the last 6-12 months of your own language learning.

What one change could you make to be more successful this year? Let us know in the comments below!

Then please give this video a share on Facebook – Yuki and I would both be grateful! Or click here to send a Tweet.

 

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  • Cute kid!

    Very cool 🙂

  • Cute little girl and very good article! The myth of children being much better language learners than adults is widespread.
    The success factors you pointed out are great. I particularly like number 1.

    • Thanks! And yes, number 1 is 80% of my language learning strategy, I think! 🙂

  • Katsiaryna Falkovich

    She is so cute 🙂
    And your conclusions are inspiring, because they show, where the knowledge of the languages comes from.

  • Incredible! What an inspiration she is.

    • Isn’t she great? 🙂

      • She is. Talented and a sweet personality (from what I could see in the video). She’ll go far! So cool that you have such a great language exchange partner. 🙂

  • Joe

    Cute smart girl wherever this guy happened to find her.

    • My best friends’ daughter. I’ve known her since she was born, but she just gets smarter and smarter…

  • Children 0-5 yrs old are much better language learners than adults, but this shouldn’t be used by adults as an excuse. Why would they?

    Children acquire the language at the same time as they develop their emotional regulation systems. This means that they acquire the language through perceptual channels that become integrated with the limbic system. Experiments with fMRI show a greater connection between your first language/s and your subcortical areas (your more emotional areas) while languages learned as an adult have a more cortical representation. This means that adults turn to their intelligence (their cortical areas) to learn a language (just like with history or math). In other words, adults use their metacognitive skills to learn a language. This is good, but is not an advantage in relation to children, who build their vocabularies from scratch. Unlike adults, they don’t have another language which causes interferences. That being said, language can also be learned at any age, but this time results will vary.

    As an adult, “mere exposition does not lead to acquisition”. If adults could learn a language through exposure, they would avoid language classes and would simply listen to the radio 2-3 hours of the target language a day (e.g Hungarian, Polish, Chinese, etc) and that would be it. As an adult, trying to learn a foreign language through exposure may be similar to digesting without a stomach.

    • Are you suggesting that young children learn languages merely through exposure?

      • Children 0-5 learn a language merely through exposure. I mean, unlike adults they don’t have to “study” consciously the language. They learn the language subconsciously. Think about how you learned your mother tongue. Did you have to struggle with it or you simply “absorbed it”?

        • Simply because the conditions are different. It is practically very hard for working adults to recreate the conditions of “motherese”, but if one were to spend the equivalent length of an entire childhood with a motherlike figure who was 1) always around b) a sympathetic listener c) constantly scaffolding your language…. results would not be so different. (Although complete native-like fluency is unlikely)

          The many language learning methods out there for adults merely exist to try to compensate for lack of time and good environment in which to learn – all the things that a enjoys automatically

          • I respectfully disagree. Motherese works for children because they build their language from scratch. They assign meaning to words and build their grammars at the same time as they develop emotionally and acquire the language. However, methods like motherese, suggestopedia, or even
            the “direct method” don’t work for adults because those methods overemphasize and distort the difference between adult language learning (conscious) and children language acquisition (subconscious). Adults already have a vocabulary/grammar that creates interferences with the new language. If there were no offsets in the language learning process, a discussion on the best way to learn a language would be as meaningless as discussing the best way to drink a glass of water.

            An adult learning Spanish will have to study the distinction between “ser” and “estar”, “por” and “para”, the subjunctive mood or reflexive verbs. Those are concepts that Spanish children
            understand instinctively without any need for formal instruction. As an adult, English phrasal verbs or German cases need to be learned whether they are taught by a teacher or a mother figure. Of course, it’ll be nicer if it’s your girlfriend/boyfriend the one doing the explanation, but it won’t make it easier. Adults have to make a conscious effort to learn something that children acquire naturally. Even some adults who marry native speakers and spend over 20 years in the target country don’t even come close to fluency and constantly
            make mistakes a child wouldn’t make. If adults were hard-wired for language, why would they have to struggle with language learning?

            I think there is a great difference between
            scaffolded learning and motherese. “Scaffolded learning” (viz Vygotsky) does not mean “learning through exposure”. Adults don’t learn when they listen, they learn when they understand. “Scaffolded learning” means gradually learning new concepts as long as you understand what they mean. If we could learn through listening, we would just watch Chinese or Arabic TV for a couple of hours a day and in about one year we’d be able to utter simple sentences in that language.

            Recreating motherese would involve finding a way to “erase” your mother tongue and go back in time to leave with you with a 0 year old brain so that you could start the whole process again. It would be like trying to go back in time and change your birthplace.

          • While you make lots of great points, I disagree with the “black and white” characterisation that you seem to be making of each concept.

            Just as you say that “adults don’t learn when they listen” – nor do children. They need extensive scaffolding, reformulation (or whatever you want to call it) from parents over many years.

            Similarly, it is misleading to say that adults only learn from scaffolded learning. Adults can benefit just as much from the socio constructivist elements of close friends or family that children do. Whilst many will not, and never become fluent (as you mention), that is not to say that it does not happen given the right conditions.

            To cite a personal example, I would say that I learnt the difference between “ser” and “estar”, and “por” and “para” primarily by extensive exposure and endless correction by friends over beer and tequila.

            It’s simply not the case that adults and children have wholly different ways of learning.

          • You’re right. Adults not only benefit from scaffolded learning but also from cultural and linguistic immersion, motivation, interest in the culture, etc. So I agree with you that in some ways there are similarities. But when it comes to the learning process itself, it’s quite different. Children 0-5 do not have to consciously “learn” grammar or vocabulary. They create it as they grow. In one of your previous posts I remember that you seemed to agree with Patricia Kuhl’s research in this regard (The Linguistic Genius of Babies).

            Adults, on the other hand, have already established their grammar+vocabulary, so this time they are not learning, but rather relearning a language. This is why -unlike children- exposure is not the key; you usually have to reinforce it with grammar/vocabulary explanations (e.g the Teach Yourself guides). Children don’t need such guides. In fact, they don’t even know how to read.

            As adults, linguistic aptitude also plays a role (an important but often downplayed variable). Some polyglots (I’m not saying this is the case) usually support their arguments on the association fallacy “because it works for me, it will work for you too”. Given the right conditions, adults may or may not learn a language to fluency, unlike children, who will learn any language regardless of the conditions.

            Of course adults can be good language learners, but not better than children.

          • Given what you’ve said then, in the case of Yukine, how do you see the difference in the learning process between Spanish/Japanese (i.e. at home with family), and German/sign languages (i.e. language lessons at school)? They are two very different set of conditions, so would you describe the learning processes as the same?

            It seems to me that “the way children learn languages” can have multiple dimensions to it as well.

          • From what I see in the video, Yukine probably acquired Spanish and Japanese from birth. There was no “learning” (conscious) in this case, but “acquisition” (subconscious). She probably did not have to “struggle” to learn those languages, just like you didn’t have to “struggle” when you learned your mother tongue. It looks like she later learned German (a little?) and sign language at school. It’s difficult to assess her level of German, since she only said her name and where she lives, but to answer your question, the learning processes are not the same. Not because the setting is different (home vs. school), but because of the difference between language acquisition (around 0-5 years old) and later language learning (or any other type of learning for that matter). Yukine has been able to learn sign language and German just as she can learn math, history, Hungarian or how to ride a bike (by consciously learning it). If you’re interested in the field of language acquisition you may want to read some articles and experiments carried out by Patricia Kuhl, Laura-Ann Petitto, Philip Liebermann, Aneta Pavlenko, Eric Lenneberg, Steven Pinker or Leonid Perlovsky.

          • Thanks for your reply.

            In an earlier reply you drew a distinction between how children and adults learn languages, and said that the process is different. You also said that children will acquire any language regardless of the conditions.

            Let’s leave aside Japanese and Spanish for a moment, since first language acquisition is of course a different argument.

            For Yuki, German and Sign Language should be considered second languages. And with respect to these, I would challenge the idea that she will learn them “regardless of the conditions”.

            What I am interested in is how this differs from how an adult would learn that same language in, for example, evening classes. Any I don’t believe there is any substantial difference.

            More to the point, I believe that if an adult had taken the same number of hours of classes in German or Sign Language as Yukine has, they would be markedly more proficient than her, due to the study skills they possess. (With the possible exception of her accent, which has been shown to be more difficult for adults to acquire.)

          • Agreed.

          • Kevin Goetz

            you could spend the rest of your life arguing these concepts..or just learn a language..UNTIL A TIME MACHINE IS INVENTED IT SEEMS RATHER IRRELEVANT..WE CANNOT transport ourselves ba
            ck to the 0-5 years old time frame in order to ‘learn better”

  • That’s amazing – how did you find this little genius Olly? You get by pretty well too! 😉

  • Great! I hope to see many talented kids like her, she is an inspiration. Btw, I like this saying very much “Spend time on your languages every day…and keep it up for years” It sounds easy, but in fact, it is a hard work and I believe in its power because I have been doing that too. Many of people I know failed to do that, and they stop learning languages.

  • Chris Broholm

    Very cute 😉 she’ll go places!

    I personally don’t believe children learn languages better nor faster than adults, but there is a kind of investigative curiosity that greatly helps children learn languages, I think.

    • For sure – lack of inhibitions is a huge plus factor for kids, I think.

  • Saullo Serra

    I think when we just do whatever we want and no rush, things can be more easier.

    • Absolutely, Saullo!

    • Faisal Alattas

      Definitely. Do what you like doing with motivation.

  • Lovely video! But I like even more how you extract the success factors. Good points to think about. Thank you!

    • Cheers, Jorge. They might be controversial… but I believe in them!

  • keyne

    “Sign language” is not a language, but a description of any language using the hands to communicate without sound. The language Yukine is learning is probably Lengua de signos española, the most common SL taught in Spain, which is very different from (and only distantly related to) American Sign Language.

    • Thanks for the clarification!

    • Uli

      A very important distinction. American Sign Language is actually the US language and different from Mexico or Canada’s as well (obviously also different from any in South America). My uncle during his work as a missionary learned more than seven different sign languages, including China’s Russia’s and Japan’s. There are even regional differences, kinda like how southerners say “soda” and northerners say “pop” there are subtle variations across the country.

      • Is there such things as a lingua franca when it comes to sign language? Are any of the varieties mutually intelligible?

        • Uli

          No more than there is in vocal language. Although I did hear about a cool project undertaken to discover which parts of gestural/body language are universal. Some, like rocking your arms to mean “baby”, are universal but I don’t think there is any true language that all deaf people the world over would understand any more than I can understand Esperanto without learning it first. A Canadian signer will mostly understand an American signer, but neither will understand a Japanese signer. I have heard anecdotally that deaf people have better luck with overcoming language barriers through use of gesture, even when trying to communicate with a hearing person.

          • Yes, that’s really interesting. I’ve seen groups of deaf people who are clearly of different nationalities signing together, and assumed that there would be a “standard”, perhaps similar to the English lingua-franca today.

        • keyne

          There’s a pidgin known as Gestuno or International Sign, used at international conferences of the Deaf. But no, there’s no real lingua franca.

          Mutual intelligibility is just like in the spoken-language world: closely related languages and nearby dialects have some amount of mutual intelligibility, in varying degrees. But even though American Sign Language, for example, derived in large part from LSF (French sign), there’s only moderate overlap in vocabulary and grammar.

          Here’s one diagram of sign-language families which might give you a better idea: Image from http://signlanguageforall.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/sign-language-family-line.jpg

          • That’s fascinating. I had assumed that sign languages were relatively recent and constructed, and therefore might have been designed with some degree of cooperation across borders, but it seems like that’s not the case!

          • Uli

            Some are constructed, like the US Marine Corps sign language and Native American sign language. However some anthropologists think that sign languages may pre-date vocalized language since our relatives the Neanderthals had very limited vocal ranges. Why did you think they were more recent?

          • Uli

            Hey, that’s really cool! Reminds me of the Clan formal language in Clan of the Cave Bear. Limited, but allowing all tribes to interact when needed.

    • Kevin Goetz

      hope this kid is not a trophy for her parents to display how wonderful “they” are for teaching her

  • William Dugger

    Anyone can memorize 2 sentences in 5 languages.. yawn.. she spoke mostly english and spanish which isn’t even special all mexican people are taught both now.

  • Faisal Alattas

    You know olly…we just need spend time with the language. And sometimes need encourage. That’s it.

    • Time and motivation! That’s two of the big factors right there 🙂

  • AdeNike

    Woow!!! I’m quite envious of her lol!!! If I get take classes in the languages I learn I did be super happy hehehe!!!

  • wooow, that’s really impressive! 🙂 and definitely motivating! 🙂 the best way for me to learn languages so far was living in the country and actively learning it, then listening and reading. It’s takes a lot time to learn a language but it is so worth it! 🙂

    • It’s definitely worth it, and Yukine is going to be a star! 🙂

  • Liam

    Go on italki, Students of the World, Conversation Exchange or similar, and find people to talk to… I’m trying to get into some kind of loose routine whereby I speak to someone in my L2 – anyone – for even just a few minutes every day (or at nightime in my case). However, good-looking French girls I’m especially looking for 😉

    Je vais utiliser italki, Étudiants du Monde, Exchange de Conversation ou quelque chose comme ça pour utiliser le français oral. Je veux utiliser mon français toutes les nuits avec quelqu’on. Mais, espécialment avec des filles française très jolies 😉

    • Sometimes it has to be in the middle of the night, especially if you’re learning an East Asian language 🙂

  • Jennifer Wells

    ヤッホー!このビデオは面白かった!ゆきちゃんが可愛いじゃん。教えてありがとう!:)

  • Yes , she did a super awesome job ! Cool !

    • Thanks Mollie – I’ll let her know you said that 🙂

  • dandiprat

    She’s got a big head start on the rest of her peers. I wish I had had the initiative to learn languages when I was in elementary school like I do now. For the most part we didn’t have to do anything in the US in the 1980s when I was in elementary school and in middle school we only had to do a little. Maybe if I’d known it would be so hard I would have searched for ways to learn Spanish or another language back in elementary school, but I just didn’t realize it would be such a big part of my life or that it would take so much effort to learn even with full immersion.

    • We never realise those things as children, do we? I’m very glad my mum forced me to take piano lessons for years… I ended up studying music at university.

  • Diego Cuadros

    impressive, saw the interview twice, I know learning langauges take time, patiance and effort, but man I’m jelous right now. xD …. awesome video! 😀

    • Keep it up! 🙂

    • Actually, your “envious” – “jealous” is you have something others want – “envious” is they have something YOU want 🙂
      Happy New Year!

  • So adorable – two masters! 🙂

    • Haha, only one master… with her whole life ahead of her!

  • Kevin Kelly

    I’m a English Native Teacher working in a school in Gran Canaria and trying to speak and learn the Spanish Language its hard but only been here 4 months and think I’m at level A2

    • 4 months is really only the beginning, so you’re doing really well! Keep it up and you’ll be black belt in no time 🙂

  • Екатерина

    She is very talent . But I dont think that kids are much better language learners than adults.It is just a game for them.