I recently received an e-mail from a colleague who stated “There seems to be some conflict with the statement you make in your book (Getting Started with English Language Learners) about adults learning language faster than children."
I do say this in my book. I present this as a myth of second language acquisition in order to give classroom teachers realistic expectations for the English language learners in their class. When I say that teenagers and adults learn a second language faster than children, I am talking about academic language. (Mc Laughlin, 1992) The purpose of presenting this myth to teachers is to emphasize that they should not expect miraculous results, assume that children have few inhibitions than adults or expect that learning a new language is easier for children than it is for adults.
I think we all recognize that young children easily acquire the language required for social interaction in an elementary school. Children outperform adults in the area of pronunciation, Children might also be more motivated to interact socially with their classmates and to acquire social language. They do not have to learn as much to achieve communicative competence in a second language. A child's constructions are shorter and simpler, and vocabulary is smaller.
Older students and adults, however, have access to the memory techniques and other strategies that more experienced learners use in acquiring vocabulary and in learning grammatical rules. These findings may reflect the mode of language instruction used in Europe, where emphasis has traditionally been placed on formal grammatical analysis. Older children are more skilled in dealing with this approach and hence might do better.
This same colleague told me that Patricia Kuhl’s findings prove that children learn languages faster. However, Patricia Kuhl's research does not negate the myth. She maintains that babies' brains have the ability to retain sounds from different languages There are many more factors involved in language acquisition than retaining sounds. .
New studies are being done all the time. New studies are exciting and do spark a lot of interesting conversations.