7 August 2013

Do children learn languages faster than adults?

children learn

I think that children do. There is ample evidence of this, for example amongst immigrants to Canada. Rare is the family where the children don’t speak English, or French, much better than their parents. We have had a lively exchange on this at our forum at LingQ, with many commenters presenting the opposite view.

I had the following to say.

“I think that adults can learn how to learn like children. The unfortunate reality is that very few do. I just finished a fascinating discussion with one of my Russian tutors, Vladim√≠r, who lives in Winnipeg. We both agree that there must be some way that we can provide an environment that enables adults to learn more like children. For this to happen, the adults would have to want to become part of a society that speaks that target language. Their motivation should be to join in that society, not just to learn the language. This is difficult for adults to do. It is difficult for them to abandon, even temporarily, their culture of origin. They hang back in the comfort, and perhaps even the sense of superiority, of their own culture. Or else they are discouraged by the fact that they are condemned to sound clumsy and less intelligent in the new language for quite a long time.

Most children don’t worry about these things. Most children are not critical of other children who speak slightly strangely. And most children are not self-conscious about how they sound. I say this without reference to the CAL report which I am now going to read in detail so I can answer Paul.”

The CAL report, here above,  referred to a report from the American Center for Applied Linguistics, entitled Myths and misconceptions about second language learning. I commented on this report as follows;

I’m skeptical of the CAL because for quite a long time I participated in a listserv with members of that organization. They are very political and very protective of their traditional role as teachers in the classroom. To the CAL, learning can only take place in a classroom. To me the classroom is often the least important factor in learning a language. There are so many factors which affect success in language learning, and yet the majority of research is done based on what happens in a classroom.

The report quoted here, from CAL, is no exception. The report is designed to provide advice to teachers in classrooms. The report assumes that learning has to take place in a classroom, especially an ESL classroom. Below I comment on some quotes extracted from the report.

I have seen time and time again, children between the ages of six and nine who move to a new country and very quickly read with the local accent and communicate with their children friends without any difficulty. The challenge is to figure out how to empower adults to learn more the way children do, and yet retain the advantages that aduts have.

“Research comparing children to adults has consistently demonstrated that adolescents and adults perform better than young children under controlled conditions” … It is clear that the reference here is to classroom language learning.

“Teachers should not expect miraculous results from children learning English as a second language (ESL) in the classroom” … Perhaps but if the child has many friends who speak the local language, the child will learn, regardless of what happens in the classroom.

“Children are more likely to be shy and embarrassed around peers than are adults.” This is simply untrue. I have never seen this to be the case.

“For example, a study of British children learning French in a school context concluded that, after 5 years of exposure, older children were better L2 learners (Stern, Burstall, & Harley, 1975).” Perhaps in the inefficient environment of the language classroom, but that is not the whole story.

“Teachers should be aware that giving language minority children support in the home language is beneficial.”… This is a major political issue in the US where there are educators who favour teaching Spanish and English to Latino immigrants.

“Cummins (1980) cites evidence from a study of 1,210 immigrant children in Canada who required much longer (approximately 5 to 7 years) to master the disembedded cognitive language required for the regular English curriculum than to master oral communicative skills.”… In reality I believe this is more a factor of how much the children read in English and other factors outside the classroom.

“Educators need to be cautious in exiting children from programs where they have the support of their home language”… Here again CAL wants to keep immigrant children in the ESL classroom as long as they can. It is good for creating teacher jobs.

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One Comment

  1. James Chalmers
    Posted August 11, 2013 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    One thing not mentioned here, though, is that children are treated differently to adults when they are learning the language. It is fine to try and learn a language like a child, but remember that children go about learning language based more on memory skills than deductive reasoning, children take years to master language and are still building language skills into adolescence, and most importantly, adults allow children to make mistakes and help them in an inclusive manner rather than ridicule, isolate, and belittle their differences in language skills. But I agree, that there are definitely potential benefits to looking at how kid learn a language and seeing if that can be applied to adult language learning, although it will never be relevant to all adults.

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