Monday, March 14, 2011

Do children really learn languages more easily than teenagers or adults?

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.


Unknown said...

Very interesting post! If I may, I'd like to add that the perception an adult has of his/her own capabilities to learn a second/foreign language plays also a big role in his/her learning. I teach Spanish as a foreign language (to francophones) at the College level; what I observe is that too often, even at the very beginning, an adult will be convinced that they won't be able to learn easily, because of their age. They repeat it to themselves like a mantra: «I will have trouble, it won't be easy, because I'm an adult». As a consecuence, at the first mistake, they tend to judge themselves too hard and this only confirm their prior assumption, that they won't be able. For the teacher, this pattern is a hard one to break. The vast majority of these adults have, in fact, a great understanding of the language, and of its nuances: they just don't believe that they have it! Everyone says it's hard for an adult to learn a foreign language, so they expect it to be so («I can't be understanding this, I'm not a kid!»). In my experience, this kind of negative thinking is a big obstacle that, maybe, children don't experience as much because they can't back up their own lack of confidence with stereotypes or myths, as adults can.

Keep up the good work. A pleasure to read you. Best regards,

Esther Boucher

Karen Nemeth said...

I think it is very important to remember that Patricia Kuhl's research does not measure language development. She measures speech perception which is only one part of language development. Her research is incredibly valuable - but not if we let our overgeneralizations get away with us. She did determine, for example, that infants do not seem to learn speech sounds from recordings or videos. Very important! But that doesn't mean no child ever learns anything from technology. So, I appreciate your distinction between informal language and academic language fluency.

Unknown said...

I agree with you about this. When living in Brazil my daughter & I had the same experiences you are talking about when learning the language in different ways during the first few years.

Unknown said...

I agree with you that teens and adults learn the grammatical language faster and young children learn the street language faster. That was the experience my daughter and I had while living in Brazil during the first few years we were learning Portuguese.
Anita Phillips

Kim Aquino said...

Hi, Judie! I have taught all levels, kids, teens and adults. I think that kids learn easily because they are easily motivated. They mimic words quickly. Teens are the hardest. Some of them are just being forced by their parents to learn English. Right now I'm teaching adults. I have adults who are really struggling with speaking.