Chatterfun News

Ego and Ambiguity: Two Reasons Learning Languages is a Breeze for Kids

By: Dr. E. Anne Shine
Assistant Professor of Writing
Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
Guest Contributor to Chatterfun

Have you ever found yourself staring in wonder as a person you know suddenly starts to speak an entirely different language? It happened to me once. My friend had never mentioned that she spoke two languages having been born in England and brought up in Germany. We had met in a third, largely monolingual country, and it is just not something that comes up in conversation. Nonetheless, to those of us who are monolingual or have only a smattering of another language, the ability to speak two or three languages is an impressive skill.
How does it happen that some people speak several languages and others only one? How does it happen that learning new languages is easier for some than others? Unfortunately, all we have are theories. However, these theories do help us to understand a lot of what is going on as people learn languages. One of the things we know is that children pick up languages with apparent ease in comparison to adults. I say apparent ease as this is disputed by some theorists. But, from what I have seen, children do pick up languages quickly and easily.

A willingness to tolerate ambiguity is related to the intake of language and is one of the reasons why we think language learning is easier for children than it is for most adults. Children are open to accepting new language items. That is what they are doing all the time as they learn their first language. It is the process they are fully engaged with, and they seem perfectly capable of going through the process with two or more languages at one time. They are not concerned when some aspect of a new language does not fit their concept of their first language. They test this new language item, try it out on others, and if communication takes place, all is well. They make room for this new item in their growing understanding of languages. Adults and those with a thick ego boundary find this more of a challenge.
This willingness to tolerate ambiguity combined with a relatively thin ego boundary enables children and some adults to learn as if by osmosis. These fortunate individuals appear to absorb language competence out of the air. But really what they are doing is being more open to the experience of taking on new linguistic items.

The term ego boundary comes from psychoanalysis but has been applied to language learning as it helps us to see that some people find it easier to absorb some aspects of language such as pronunciation without the need for drill. It seems to be due to the way these people relate to other people, other cultures, other ways of being and communicating. By being open to the ways of others, they can absorb and utilize language cues with ease.

So a tolerance of ambiguity combined with a thin ego boundary aids the absorption of language that we observe, and perhaps envy, in children.