My firstborn turned 3 years old a week ago. If there's one thing I notice in him, it's his ability to use proper grammar in his Malay language and his memory. His English is nowhere near "natural", and I guess for this year it has to be a change of language for our home use.
Amazingly, I did a non-motivated research on this ability. A psycholinguist, Pinker, from Massa*chusetts Institute of Technology says that a three-year-old toddler is "a grammatical genius"--master of most constructions, obeying adult rules of language. Peter Freeman, a fluent six-language speaker states that "In the first 3 years of a child's life, they acquire most of their native language, and they do it with no textbooks, no drills, no flashcards, no explanations and no language software. They learn by interacting with people and their surroundings."
Research has shown that there are First Language Acquisition and Second Language Acquisition, however, since this research was done in a single-language speaking world (ie. USA), we'll change it a bit to Mother Language Acquisition and Secondary Language Acquisition. Purely via observation, in Malaysia, if you're a malay, you learn malay at a high successful level and english at various level (depending where you live) by the age of 12. For Chinese, in the Klang Valley, at 12 they are fluent in Chinese (and/or dialects of their parents), ok in Malay and quite bad in English. Amazingly, for Chinese who pushes English language as an important aspect to their children, the child ends up being fluent in English, ok in Malay and ok in verbal Chinese (and/or dialects) but are usually unable to read/write chinese. I have not enough experience with Indian compadres to make a conclusion of my observation for them.
Is a new language really hard to learn? I think most research are true, that if you want to learn the language, you have to live where the language is being spoken, and nothing else. You learn Chinese in China. In Malaysia, even if you live amongst Chinese, you will not learn as fast because you'll be going through a "translation" course with your Chinese, while in China it's a Do-Or-Die situation whereby both don't speak the language. I mean, of course there are English speaking chinese, but I'm pushing more towards the really non-English speaking ones.
Another is being in love with the language, most common example is loving to watch Japanese anime and slowly learning the language due to repetition... and it's good, because then you'll learn the normal speaking of the language and what phrases are usually used. If you were to use a book, it would be too formal. You wouldn't want to talk in Malay "Apa kamu buat di situ?" instead of "Kau buat apa kat situ?" or "Apa kau buat tu?". So, these videos are quite a good source of learning, though it's also quite slow.
My favourite method of learning, since a non-English speaking friend is almost non-existence in Malaysia, is to listen to their phone conversation. At least then you can see how sentences are structured, how words are used differently provided you do have a little bit of experience in SOV vs SVO.
SVO is Subject - Verb -Object which is commonly used in English, such as "I hate this". Most common used in the world are SOV - Subject - Object - Verb, such as in Chinese "I, this, hate!" which would sound a little like Yoda, though he actually uses OSV like in Star Wars's "Your father, he is" or if you were to pull his whiskers, he'll yell "Die, you will" and cut you up.
I'm not gonna post about languages here, just enough to note that while learning a language may seem difficult, like a friend says, we usually just use less than 1200 words, and actually use less than 300 different words on a daily basis. (I can't find a source to prove it during the time of this blog, but I've read it somewhere before). But I think, after learning words, and the SOV, SVO, etc.... in just a few weeks of common repetition, we can make a decent conversation with it.
Which is why I don't understand the hoo-haa about mastering English to get a good job. The Japanese (incidentally I received an email from Japan today asking to meet up about my job), doesn't mind bad English, as long as the message gets through. So I really think that as long as messages get through, there's really no need for a superb English speaking employee unless they're involved in producing white documents.
Back to my son,... he'll start English. Poor him.