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What My 2-Year-Old Taught Me About Learning a Foreign Language

I’ve been living in Indonesia for 4 years with an Indonesian husband and two children who were born here. Everyone expects me to be fluent in Indonesian, but I have to admit – I am not. Yes, I am conversational, yes I carry out a lot of my day to day business in Indonesian and understand most of what is said but I still panic if I get a phone call that’s not in English and I am shameful of the fact I speak to my husband in English most of the time.

When I first arrived here I learned my usual basics – the numbers from 1 to 10 and a few words and phrases (Lonely Planet phrase books are great for this – my Indonesian one contains the gem “Saya tidak mau mati” – “I don’t want to die”, to the hilarity of my husband when we’d just met). But then I stopped, maybe because I was tired of the constant language learning from months of travelling, maybe because I got lazy in a country where everyone including my future husband speaks decent English. Whatever the reason, I’ve not reached the fluency that I thought I would after several years of living in a country.

And then my oldest child, my daughter, started to talk. Not in English as I’d imagined but in a mixture of Indonesian and Balinese, reflecting the words she hears day in and day out. I watched her progress from those first few words to near total fluency in less than a year and I’m starting to get an idea of where I’ve been going wrong.

My daughter reading National Geographic - as you do when you're 2

My daughter reading National Geographic – as you do when you’re 2


Want to learn a language the same way a baby does? Keep the following in mind:

Speak what you hear, not what you’re told.

My daughter often speaks in Balinese, despite Indonesian being the main language my husband and his family have chosen to communicate with her in. When she first started speaking, I was amazed at her coming out with random words that nobody had ‘taught’ her. How? She watches and listens and copies. She’s already figured out that Balinese is the dominant language around here and chooses it in favour of Indonesian or English.

Learning a language from books and structured language courses can make you sound rather formal and stilted when you speak. I’m constantly explaining to my family when they visit that the phrases they’ve learned are yes, technically correct, but you would never hear anyone say it like that here.

Listen to how the others around you talk and imitate their accent, tone and mannerisms for a more natural way of speaking.

For example, “thank you” in Indonesian is “terima kasih” but here in Bali you’re much more likely to hear a shortened “makasih ya?” in everyday situations.

Laugh at yourself

Photo credit: cheriejoyful (flickr)

Photo credit: cheriejoyful (flickr)


As a 2-year-old, some of the things my daughter comes out with are just downright funny, so we laugh at her. And she laughs with us, she doesn’t turn bright red and refuse to talk again. In fact she delights in our laughter and repeats whatever she said in order to try and get us to laugh again. One of the biggest reasons for people not speaking a foreign language is fear of sounding stupid or people laughing at you if you say something wrong. This is something I struggle with myself and I’m fully aware that I just need to get over it and laugh at myself along with everyone else. If you’re too scared to speak, you will never learn another language.


Songs can be a great way of learning a foreign language. Singing is fun, it helps you remember words much more easily than just speaking them and you’ll also find your accent is much improved when you sing. It’s as easy as just listening to a local radio station or looking up the lyrics of a song in your target language. This is also a great way to discover some new favourite bands.

Stay curious

Photo credit - naddel (flickr)

Photo credit – naddel (flickr)


Every time my daughter encounters a fruit she hasn’t seen before or sees an unfamiliar animal at the zoo, she asks what it’s called. Young children are infamous for asking ‘why?’ constantly and part of the reason for this is language development. Of course most parents are aware of the need to ‘teach’ their children to talk and will repeatedly say things like “this bird is called a parrot” and “look at the RED balloon”. As adults, we don’t have the advantage of others trying to teach us constantly so we need to make sure we keep asking questions. If you don’t know the word for something, ask.

Talk, talk, talk

My daughter is a chatterbox and often sits talking to herself. She even talks in her sleep. When she learns a new word she’ll often drop it into conversation as much as she can. Practice makes perfect and speaking is the only way of becoming fluent in a foreign language. It’s very easy to study books and listen to mp3s without saying a single word but just going out there and talking, even if you don’t know all the words, will do you the world of good. Since I’ve been making more of an effort to talk to my husband in Indonesian rather than English, I’ve noticed a huge difference in the rate my knowledge is increasing. If you follow only one tip, make it this one.

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