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Do children really learn faster than adults?

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So the other day I saw an article posted on facebook by lingq that talked about how children can learn two languages as easily as they can learn one. I read the article and at first agreed with it since it usually is thought that young children have brains like "sponges" and can easily absorb information. I mean we've all heard that at least a 1000 times, right? However, after some reflection I found that I don't really understand why people think this. Talking to my nine year old brother, I found that even after being fully immersed in English for nine years straight, going to school, learning, talking at home, he still says things like "I buyed" or "we fighted". Surely with a sponge-like brain it would be easy to pick up on such mistakes and learn to speak correctly. Not to mention a nine year old isn't capable of conversing on more complicated subjects such as politics or religion. In my case, I'm a pretty average language student and have been learning French for almost three years. I can confidently say that in the European framework of languages I am about a C1. But would a 3 year old French child be at the same level? No. Would a 6 year old French child be at the same level? No. Would even a 9 year old French child be at the same level? Probably not. So basically what I'm getting at is where does this idea that children are masters of learning languages come from? Is it just that they don't have to put as much effort into it? Is it because they acquire accents easier? In the example I gave, is nine too young? Is there a golden period of time that is better like 10 or 11? When is too late? This is just my view on it, I would like to know what Steve and others think. :)

This is the exact point I have been making. Why do people say that children are better language learners when they take much longer to learn a language despite being completely immersed in the language?

Children can't study grammar, and so learn more slowly. But because their learning takes physiological root more fully, in the form of hot-wired synapses which govern even the minutiae of pronunciation, they really learn it, assuming they aren't exposed to too much white noise, or idiotic parents, etc. Assuming various other factors.

I've written an article to this theme "How do children and adults learn languages?"
If you are interested, you can read it.
Here is the link:

@evgueny, this is an excellent article, very well translated and very interesting to listen to. I can recommend this article to other listeners / readers!


Thanks, Fasulye.
We can think about the translation this article later also into German.

In general, I think children learn faster than adults. When I immigrated to Canada as a five-year-old child, I learned English in no time. I have no recollection of having had any difficulty in communicating with my classmates at school. I believe this is because I was not trying to learn the language, but merely wanted to communicate with people around me. The child, especially younger than six or seven, is not self-conscious about the learning process.

But this depends on the environment. There are children of immigrants who spend most of their time within their own language community, and many of these people never learn to speak English properly. In Vancouver one third of ESL students were born in Vancouver, mostly to Chinese immigrants.

In my view, to the extent that we can imitate the way a child learns, the better we will learn. By this I mean exposing ourselves to as much of the language as possible, and focusing on communicating rather than on deliberately learning the language. In other words speaking our own language as little as possible, and not being self-conscious about how we sound.

Children learn faster precisely because they don't study grammar. It is the adult, tied up with his grammar study, that learns more slowly. Within a year or so I was speaking fluent English, the same as my peers. My parents who spoke English when they arrived in Canada, never managed to speak error-free English and retained their accents. This is the case with most immigrants who arrived after the age of 18. On the other hand, children who arrive in Canada before the age of 12 or 13, mostly learn to speak fluid and error-free English, as long as they get enough exposure.

As for nine-year-olds saying "fighted" etc., this is a little unusual in my experience. However language develops differently with different individuals. I know friends of my children who could not pronounce their "r"s until their teenage years. These people now speak normally and are successful.

Adults do have some advantages over children, because of their greater life experience and knowledge of adult concepts, and the words for these concepts in their own language. The fact that an adult can discuss philosophy, whereas a five-year-old cannot, does not mean that the adult is a better language learner.

QUOTE @evgueny: "We can think about the translation this article later also into German." Your article which I read in English is worthwhile offering in German as well. Like with all our podcasts: If you are willing to do the translation, I am very motivated to do the corrections of the German text. I have the work ethic of a corrector not of a translator. But that's nothing new to reveal.

This article would perfectly fit into the new lesson series "Wie wir Sprachen lernen".

But we'll talk about this on Friday!



I don't know why this "had all his needs taken care of" is such an important part of your argument. In the vast majority of cases, if a working person moves to France with a six-year-old son, and the son goes to school and is immersed in French, and the parent goes to work and his immersed in French, they will meet at home in the evening and speak their native language. No difference that can be ascribed to having their knees taken care of.

The six-year-old, by the age of 10 has a good chance of being mistaken for a native speaker. This is not likely to be the case with the adult. If the adult attends some kind of immersion French school aimed at non-native speakers, their chances of success are probably lower then if they work in French and are forced to communicate in French daily. This assumes of course that they are motivated enough to learn on their own so that they will be able to communicate properly at work.

Obviously motivation is an important factor. The child is naturally motivated to communicate and has relatively few inhibitions, in most cases. This is usually not the case with the adult who has more psychological obstacles to overcome. However the adult will probably have a larger vocabulary and be able to read more complicated material. This is a factor of the different interests, levels of general knowledge, and relevant vocabulary of an adult and child. Is not something that is inherent in the ability to learn languages.

You can´t compare "learning french for 3 years" with "being a child in a french speaking country for 3 years". I think we should try to calcute the "hours of exposure" instead.
A few weeks ago, I´ve started a thread called "Language Learning - Let´s do The Math!", here´s the gist of what I wrote:

"A native speaker at the age of 18 has spend approximately 100,000 hours speaking, writing, listening to or thinking in their native language. 150,000 hours if you count sleeping. (24x365x18)

I had 3 hours of English lessons a week, plus 1 hour of homework (I guess) for 8 years. That ´s 1700 hours. (0.5714something x365x8)

Just look at these numbers, seriously, look at them!^^
Does it really make sense to say that "children are better at language learning"? Isn´t it a miracle to speak at least some xyz-lish after putting so little effort into it?"

I´m pretty sure that an adult would reach a native-like level after being immersed for 100,000 hours. That´s why I don´t think that children are "faster".

@Paule89: "A native speaker at the age of 18 has spend approximately 100,000 hours speaking, writing, listening to or thinking in their native language" -- yes, but for many, it's the same 50 words, over and over! :)

As an aside, it may not matter if children are faster. We are what we are. I guess we understand a phenomenon by observing diferential results and circumstances, so perhaps that's why the question arises.

The real goal of an adult language learner is to be precise, not to be native.

I apologize for the occasional incomprehensible mistake in my comments. I use the dictation feature on my computer, and occasionally the odd mistake that's through. (slips through)


I don't think your calculation is all that relevant. Many children become fluent within a few years of arriving in a new country. Fluent, of course, within the limits of the vocabulary of a child of their age. This can happen even if the child speaks with the parents in another language at home. This rarely happens with an adult.


Agreed ;)


Sure, but an adult has to learn much more than a child, right?
So, how can we make a fair comparison?

But why would a child want to converse about politics or religion? There are adults who can't converse about these subjects either. As Kimojima points out, there are a lot of things kids have no need to know. I for one wouldn't be able to converse about, say, Greek philosophy or hedge funds because I'm not interested in these topics and have no need to talk about them.

On the other hand a nine year-old knows slang, can describe a lot of practical things or games when most foreigners can't.


I'm not sure that I understand your argument. Are you saying that children are faster because they are more open-minded? Or just because of the situation that they are placed in? I can understand that adults have more on their plate than just language learning, so I can see how a child placed in a French (or whatever language) school would learn faster than an adult that was put in a French for foreigners type class for a fraction of the time. A situation like this is probably what would be the case 95% percent of the time. But if the adult was not bound by work, school, and other commitments and was motivated enough to immerse themselves in the language whole-heartedly do you still believe that the child would be better? I agree that children are naturally motivated, but if the adult was just as motivated or even more, why couldn't they be better?

@ Steve

Well I have been living in Austria for just over a year now. You will not find a seven year old child who has been living in the German speaking world for that long and who can speak about astrophysics in German better than I can.

...I think that's what those in the Scrabble business call check mate!

Google search on 'children sla faster' - first hit:

Myth 1: Children learn second languages quickly and easily
Myth 2: The younger the child, the more skilled in acquiring an L2
Myth 3: The more time students spend in a second language context, the quicker they learn the language
Myth 4: Children have acquired an L2 once they can speak it
Myth 5: All children learn an L2 in the same way

CAL means Center for applied linguistics, like it or not. ;)

Sometimes people think they speak two languages, when in reality they speak neither. They sound natural, though!

I think some people are missing the point. I do believe that kids are better because of the situation they are in. They have little to no responsibilities other than to learn. Adults often have to deal with things life throws at them such as work and what not, often conducted in the L1 as kimojima pointed out. However, perhaps a different example would help. Let's say that anyone who trains like an olympian can become one (putting talent and genetics aside). Now even if that statement were true, the vast majority of people would simply not have the time, motivation, dedication, or even interest to train like an olympian, even though the possibility to become one would be there. This is how I feel language learning is. I personally feel that adults have the ability to speak just as well as natives, but almost never follow through with it due to the reasons I mentioned above.


I totally agree with your last post!


For very young children, say earlier than five, they are less hardwired or stuck in their ways, insofar as being committed to one language is concerned. Our brain naturally forms habits or patterns in order to cope with everyday experience. The more entrenched these habits or patterns become, the harder it becomes to form new habits or at least different habits. That is a major reason why a very young person learns languages faster, in my opinion.

The second reason why younger children even up to the age of 10 or 12, learn better than adults is because they are not so self-conscious. If they are playing with friends and go to school with friends who speak the new language, they simply want to communicate in the language they are not so deliberately trying to learn it.

In observing immigrants and children of immigrants in Canada, it is impossible not to conclude that children learn better than adults. There is hardly any exception to this rule. This is just observation. I don't think this has anything to do with children's lack of responsibility. It has to do with the natural inhibition of the adult versus the playful yet focused attitude of the child.

"Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play. Heraclitus Greek philosopher 535–475 BC .."


I hope you are joking.


You won't be surprised to hear that I am very skeptical of both the Center for Applied Linguistics and research on language learning.

@ Steve

Yes of course. I had nothing good to say here, so I made a joke.

Huntsman asked a good question, that didn´t get enough attention. ^^

"I agree that children are naturally motivated, but if the adult was just as motivated or even more, why couldn't they be better?"

I´ve met some immigrants who learned to speak German at a native-like level within 1 or to 2 years, just because they were highly motivated. None of them came from english speaking countries though...


"You won't be surprised to hear that I am very skeptical of both the Center for Applied Linguistics and research on language learning."

I understand your scepticism, but the "Children Capable of Learning Two Native Languages As Easily as One"-article posted by LingQ is based on research, just like the article posted by Jeff. I´d love hear an explanation why you´re so sceptical about the CAL article, while you seem to think that the article posted by LingQ is totally legit.

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