First Language Acquisition:
Make Mistakes Freely

Taitows pleaseI'm learning about first language acquisition from my one-year-old son as he learns English. Much of his day involves trial and error practice. When his eyes wander over an object that he knows, the word pops out of his mouth.

He often gets stuck on a word, "dawg, dawg, dawg." It doesn't matter that he thinks all four-legged creatures are dogs, I still encourage his speech. "Yes, honey, that is a special kind of dog that we call a horse."

He can't form all the English sounds, especially r's and c's. So he talks of "taish" when we take out the trash and a "tietow" when we have a snack of cheese and crackers. I say the words correctly and reward him with praise, and cheese and crackers.

We can take useful tips from this example of first language acquisition. As you learn a new language, you will encounter sounds you can't make and wish for words you don’t yet know. Unstinting practice will help you create the new sounds; and taking verbal detours using words you do know will help you get your meaning across. Practice with your mentor. Practice when you see familiar objects. Practice in the mirror. Repeat words in your mind. Finally, practice with native speakers. And reward your successes. Crackers and cheese, anyone?

Whoops, Just Hand Me a Cucumber

During her recent trip to Peru, Ann made one of her more hilarious mistakes when she jokingly asked for a tip. While dining at a restaurant, she noticed a large group of tourists looking in the window trying to decide whether to eat there or not. She gave them a friendly wave, and after a short time they came in for lunch, nearly filling the dining room.

As she prepared to leave, Ann chatted with the restaurant owner and commented that she had encouraged the tourists to come in. She asked the owner if he thought she deserved a tip for her assistance. He looked slightly puzzled. It was only after she left that she realized that she had suggested he give her a pepino (a cucumber, or in Peru, a juicy, sweet fruit not commonly found in US supermarkets) instead of a propina (a tip)!

I can't promise that you'll never make any cultural mistakes while you're learning your new language, but I can give you a guide that will smooth over your indiscretions, embarrassing remarks, or unintentional offenses. Download the Walkabout Language Learning Action Guide to find out how a mentor can help you and to learn how to get one.

And, next time you make a mistake, forgive yourself, laugh about it with your mentor or a friend or two, and reward yourself with a juicy cucumber.

Click here to read a my embarrassing culture story.

Update 2012: I have two sons now. We've started having "Spanish Meals with Mom." Read more about how I'm teaching my children Spanish.

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