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Do children really learn faster than adults?

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I think that Steve is absolutely right when he talks about how children are less hardwired in their ways or that they aren't self-conscious. They are just trying to communicate and aren't necessarily trying to learn the language. What I don't understand however is how adults CAN'T do these things. Why can't an adult be open-minded or unselfconscious? I personally would feel very self-conscious singing in front of an audience. Some people however would do it like it's nothing (and not just good singers either). How is language learning any different? I get that adults generally are afraid of making mistakes or looking like a fool, but I don't see how it absolutely has to be that way just because you're an adult. Maybe I'm getting too picky. I do think that Steve has a good point though...

Huntsman,

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, Vladimír, 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.

Paul,

First of all I was not responsible for the article that appeared in the LingQCentral blog. These articles are put out there for discussion and don't necessarily reflect my views.

I'm skeptical of the CAL because for quite a long time I participated in a listserv with members of the 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.

Thanks Steve. I may take some heat for saying this, but isn't someone like Benny a good example of this? Putting aside the whole "fluent in 3 months" thing or "throw out the grammar book and just go talk to people" idea, he DOES show that you don't have to be afraid to speak. I mean in one of his more recent videos he starts trying to speak Polish after only an hour. Now I don't really think that this is a good idea, and to be honest, it's pretty silly. But, if there is anything to be learned I think it's that adults don't HAVE to be bashful or embarrassed to speak. Again, I'm not recommending that everybody go out and start trying to speak a language after only an hour or even that speaking early on is mandatory. I would agree that waiting until one has received a certain amount of input is better. But you can't deny that he does show that it's possible.

@Paule89

I'm glad you gave the example of the German immigrants you met speaking like natives after only a year or two. I don't however see the importance of the fact that they weren't from English-speaking countries. I understand that native English speakers are generally not regarded as being strong in foreign languages, but I don't think that they are by any means less capable of doing so. If that is what you were getting at.

@Steve

Thanks for your detailed response :)

@Huntsman

They´re just as capable as everybody else :)

It´s just that "english" expats often hang out with other expats, or germans who speak English at a high level and see expats as "free practice". A guy from Lithuania probably doesn´t have that problem...^^

That´s the perspective of a "Berliner" though. I guess that it´s easier to avoid learning a language in a major city, than it would be in rural areas.

Huntsman,

Benny is more typical of the self-conscious and deliberate adult language learner. Children don't engage strangers in conversations in a random fashion, for the purpose of learning their language.

Children want to make friends. They connect with other children in a way that is not self-conscious but rather natural. They just want to play games and hang out together, without any particular purpose or goal.

Based on the children of immigrants that I have met here, those who arrive here between the ages of nine and 15, usually manage to learn English well. They certainly learn better than their parents.

Problems arise when there is too large a group of speakers of their own language at the school. This makes it more difficult for them to interact with the local kids. Otherwise the kids manage just fine, boys and girls, notwithstanding the cliques in the schoolyard

I just want to point out that the original point made here by huntsman that I agreed with is that adults learn their second language better than children learn their first. Since then, the discussion has been about comparing adults learning their second languages with children learning their second languages. I think this is a more interesting discussion but it is important not to mix the two questions up.

@Paule: "...It´s just that "english" expats often hang out with other expats, or germans who speak English at a high level and see expats as "free practice". A guy from Lithuania probably doesn´t have that problem..."

I agree - this absolutely rings true with my own experience. Many English native speakers in Germany don't even try to learn German, and they generally don't have any pressing need to do so. Very many Germans can speak English - at least well enough to communicate effectively. (And some of the younger generation are very good indeed.)

I would say English native speakers in Germany fall into two groups: a.) those who hang out almost exclusively with fellow native speakers, or with non-natives who are highly fluent in English; b.) those who actively *avoid* English speakers of every kind!

I was firmly in "group b" myself - but German was still far from an easy language to learn! :-0

In my opinion people in "group a" have little chance of learning anything beyond the real basics.

@ J_1_S

My experience in Austria is that this has little to do with English native speakers. It is about English speakers in general. I have an English speaking job and work with a huge number of foreigners from many countries who are all at a high level in English. None of them, to my knowledge, have learned German to any significant level. They are all comfortable speaking English all the time.

[edit: I have also met non-native English non-German speakers outside of work and the situation seems basically the same.]

I still think that some people are confusing reality with possibility. Yes in the majority of cases adults are likely to do less well than their kids because they either don't try and/or they have commitments that prevent them from doing so, at least partially. That's life. But if an adult had absolutely nothing to do except for learn the language and they went about it the right way, I don't see how they couldn't achieve better results. Most of the time this won't be the case. Yes there are many expats living in foreign countries that are not at all interested in learning the language. That's the reality of things. But putting all that aside, I feel like adults have the ability to become better, but most won't take advantage of it.

@ColinJohnstone

Thank you for pointing that out. Very often we hear that our native language is the easiest to learn because of some inherent sponge brain soaking ability. While there may be some truth to this I feel that adults, due to being more mature as well as having more life experience, can easily come out on top. Little children still make simple mistakes not to mention have a rather small vocabulary. Steve mentioned in an earlier post that "many children become fluent within a few years of arriving in a new country". I do believe that he's right, but even then, children are only able to converse on simple subjects. They could tell you what they did at school or what they had for lunch, but couldn't explain who they thought was going to win an upcoming election and why. Steve gives the example that a 6 year old would most likely be mistaken for a native speaker after having lived in a given country for four years. I agree. They may speak a language as well as a native 10 year old, but they would still be missing a lot in my book. I honestly believe that if you set a goal for yourself that after four years of learning (insert language here) you wanted to speak as well as a 10 year old, and you only studied things a 10 year old would know, it wouldn't be that hard. I think you could do it in half the time if not less.

@hunstman: "...Steve mentioned in an earlier post that "many children become fluent within a few years of arriving in a new country". I do believe that he's right, but even then, children are only able to converse on simple subjects. They could tell you what they did at school or what they had for lunch, but couldn't explain who they thought was going to win an upcoming election and why. Steve gives the example that a 6 year old would most likely be mistaken for a native speaker after having lived in a given country for four years. I agree. They may speak a language as well as a native 10 year old, but they would still be missing a lot in my book. I honestly believe that if you set a goal for yourself that after four years of learning (insert language here) you wanted to speak as well as a 10 year old, and you only studied things a 10 year old would know, it wouldn't be that hard. I think you could do it in half the time if not less."

All of this is true. But what happens if our hypothetical family stays in country X for fifteen or twenty years?

At some stage the person who went there as a six-year-old is going to be like a full blown native-speaking adult. But the parents, having started to learn the language as adults, are never going to become 100% like a native speaker. They may be very very good, but not fully native, IMO.

@ huntsman

" I do believe that he's right, but even then, children are only able to converse on simple subjects. They could tell you what they did at school or what they had for lunch, but couldn't explain who they thought was going to win an upcoming election and why."

I don't think this is a meaningful point. People cannot talk about things well that they do not know anything about. I don't think this says much about their language learning abilities.

Yes this is not a valid point for me either. Kids generally don't give a damn about elections and are not concerned by them anyway. However in my experience kids, if they're interested in a "complex" subject, can talk about it well. There are kids who like birds, or History, some may even be interested in politics. When I was a kid I loved dinosaurs and knew much more about them than I know today for example. So if I follow the same logic it would mean that I spoke French better as a kid.

Jay aka J_1_S made a point though, that over a long period of time kids (who will not be kids anymore) will be more successful than adults.

@colinJohnstone, @Jorgis

You guys are definitely right in saying that just because someone (child or adult) isn't interested in something, that doesn't mean that they don't speak the language. There are tons of things I personally don't know about, but it doesn't mean I don't speak English. Just because someone knows more about, say dinosaurs doesn't mean they necessarily speak better than me. I guess the point I was trying to make was that there are certain things that we talk about on a daily basis that children don't understand simply because they aren't mature enough. They simply just can't understand. Sure, kids don't care about elections, but there is a good chance that even if you tried to explain it to them they wouldn't get it. It's simply something that you acquire as you get older and mature. An adult however is more capable of understanding these concepts right off the bat or with little effort.

I just don´t think that it´s a fair comparison...
It´s like saying that children are better athletes, because an average child can run 100m in 13 seconds, while an adult needs 27 seconds for 200 meters. (<--fictional numbers)

Wir vergleichen hier Äpfel mit Birnen!^^ (We´re comparing apples with pears)

Tonight I am going to a lecture given by Matvei Ganapolsky of Echo Moskvi, who is visiting Vancouver. There'll be 100 or more Russian immigrants in the room. I expect that most of them will speak English quite poorly, especially the older ones. The younger adults will probably speak the best. Their children, who won't be there, will mostly speak English like natives.

We have friends, the Zhangs. They have been in Vancouver for six years. They both attend government-sponsored ESL schools, although they are quite wealthy, and hardly speak English. Their son sounds like a native, he is 14 years old.

I could go on and on with similar examples.

On the other hand, my grandchildren attend French immersion school. After 9, 10, 11 years in French immersion, their French, at least their spoken French, is far from native quality. I believe they have good comprehension and have the potential to improve their speaking ability quite quickly. However,many adults, if motivated and if they spent 10 years in a French immersion school would probably learn better.

What conclusions do I draw? Only a motivated learner can learn a language. Adults, and I mean motivated adults, may be better than children at learning in the classroom environment, in other words better at deliberately learning the language.

However, the classroom is a poor learning environment. Even the French immersion classroom is an efficient learning space. The children are all anglophones, and they either communicate with each other in English, or do something very unnatural, communicate with each other in French. Their peers are not French-speaking.

Deliberately learning the language, and especially focusing on the nuts and bolts of the language as part of a deliberate effort to learn the language, is not the most efficient way to learn in my view. An artificial language environment such as the French immersion classroom, is also not so efficient. In fact, since the other students are not native speakers, it is really not immersion at all. Nor are the children very motivated.

If I look at my own experience, it was only when I felt the desire to connect with French, with the French language, with French people, with French culture etc., in fact, in a way, to become French, that I really started to learn. The children of immigrants want to become Canadian like their peers. Therefore they easily imitate the way other Canadian kids speak. They have an intrinsic desire to join another group and to adopt some of the behaviour patterns of that group.

The older the adult is, the more unlikely he or she will want to do this. In my own language learning, I am driven more by my interest in the subject matter that I am listening to and reading, in the culture surrounding the language, and by the desire to communicate with speakers of that language, than by a desire to master the language. When I learn a language, I want to become one of "them". I believe this is the key to language learning success, whether for children or adults. Far more children achieve this state of mind than adults.

I do review grammar from time to time, and more so after I have acquired a familiarity with the language and enough vocabulary so that I can go back in and focus on some of the problems that I have with correct usage. But my initial impetus, what drives me to get into the language, is my interest in communicating, initially listening and reading, and eventually speaking.

One of the books that I'm reading is called "Introducing second language acquisition" (by Muriel Saville-Troike). It's suggested that some of the major differences between younger and older learners are:
Younger advantage
• Brain plasticity
• Not analytical
• Fewer inhibitions (usually)
• Weaker group identity
• Simplified input more likely

Older advantage
• Learning capacity
• Analytic ability
• Pragmatic skills
• Greater knowledge of L1
• Real-world knowledge

"While most would agree that younger learners achieve ultimately higher levels of L2 proficiency, evidence is just as convincing that adolescents and adults learn faster in initial stages. While “brain plasticity” is listed as a younger learner advantage in 4.3, older learners are advantaged by greater learning capacity, including better memory for vocabulary. Greater analytic ability might also be an advantage for older learners, at least in the short run, since they are able to understand and apply explicit grammatical rules." (pp 83-94)

By the way, it was suggested somewhere (in Anthony's polyglot conference talk?) that a child learned/acquired 1000 words per year. And then we have Steve who as an adult has learned several thousands of words in Russian, in rather a short time.

So, who is learning words better/quicker?

I don't necessarily disagree with the points made by Jeff and kimojima. However, attitude is the decisive factor in language learning. That is why children usually learn better. I am not talking about differences in innate ability, as isolated from attitude. I am not sure how you separate innate language learning ability from the attitudinal factors.

I think the last few posts, especially Steve's, quite clearly show where the main confusion in this discussion has been. Do we consider motivation and attitude to be part of somebodies ability or not? I think why should, and here is why.

Take this example. Consider two men who are basically the same in height, age, and natural athleticism. One man is very motivated to do sports, is a body builder, and spends most of his time down at the gym pumping iron. The other man is lazy, never lifts weights, and spends most of his time sitting at his computer, eating potato chips, and commenting on online forums. Which man is better at body building? We would always say the first one, despite the fact that both of them are equally physically able to do so. Nobody would say that they are actually equally good, but the only difference in that the first one is more motivated.

I think the same is true in this discussion. If children are more motivated to learn languages than adults, that is not the reason that children get better results than adults despite the fact that they are equally as good at language learning, that is the reason why children are better at language learning.

If I read your example correctly, only one guy is actually doing exercises. It's hard to compete with that.

I'm not suggesting that either children or adults are better at language learning "all the time", but that both groups have advantages.

@jeff lindqvist

Yes only one guy would be doing exercises, but they are both capable of achieving the same results. One of them just chooses not to apply themself.

A few days ago I started a thread titled "When is it better to study grammar?" in which I tried to explain this point, but did so very poorly in my opinion. The example I gave was with Spanish conjugations. Basically what I was getting at was why would I wait years for conjugations to be "absorbed" subconsciously through time with the language (like a child) when I could just practice them like crazy for a week or two and have them down pat? Sure it may be "harder" than not doing so and thus require more "effort", but it's possible. There are without a doubt other concepts that would also apply to this.

@kimojima

I agree with you about waiting for the defining argument about how kids are better language learners. I mean let's face it, Steve is correct when he talks about immigrants coming over to Canada only to have their children run circles around them in English or French. That is what would happen almost every single time. But I feel that it is more due to circumstance than anything else. I am yet to be convinced that children are better language learners just because they are younger and nothing else. Not because of the situations they are in or the relationships they form, but because they are younger.

@huntsman

"...why would I wait years for conjugations to be "absorbed" subconsciously through time with the language (like a child) when I could just practice them like crazy for a week or two and have them down pat? Sure it may be "harder" than not doing so and thus require more "effort", but it's possible."

Have you ever tried doing that? If so, did it work?



@paule89

Yes of course, this is what I did for French and what I have very recently started doing in Spanish. I'll conjugate about 200 verbs a day in every tense. Is it tedious? Yes. Do I really really really want to learn Spanish so that I can speak to my Spanish friends? Yes. I do understand that many would make the argument that just because someone knows how to conjugate verbs that does not necessarily mean that they speak the language well (or even at all). They would be absolutely right. But I don't see how putting some effort into learning a language is so bad. But even if someone only wanted to practice, say 2 or 3 verbs a day I still feel that that they would learn them a lot quicker and more efficiently than if they were to wait to learn them solely from exposure. Conjugations are obviously just one tiny little aspect in a language, but I felt it was a good example to get my point across. There are countless other examples of things like this. I honestly feel that it is very hard to learn a language SOLELY from exposure. Some deliberate learning is necessary. For those who say that one's native language is acquired just through massive exposure I would ask them what the purpose of school is. I remember being in school and learning new words, taking spelling tests, having tests on prepositions and verbs, etc... Generally what do people who don't go to school sound like? well...... uneducated. I'm sure you have met people like this in Germany. How many times have you seen poor English written by a native English speaker? Too many times, right? My German is extremely limited, but I'm sure this extends to them as well (only in German). I know for sure that many French people are TERRIBLE at writing their language. It's not at all uncommon to see a sentence like «Tu à manger» instead of «Tu as mangé» written by a born and raised Francophone. The reason why this is is because they go mainly based on what SOUNDS RIGHT and not the actual rules of the language. In a language like French (or really any language to at least some extent) this can pose many problems. Although LOTS OF exposure does help you get the feel for what is right and wrong, I don't see how deliberately trying to learn the language or even being «grammar-heavy» at times is a bad thing. I know there will be tons of people who may disagree with me and bring up the countless families in which the child goes to school in one language but speaks another at home. Even in cases like these, one language is bound to be better than the other (and I bet it's the one they go to school in.) Alright, I'm done rambling. :)

"It's not at all uncommon to see a sentence like «Tu à manger» instead of «Tu as mangé» written by a born and raised Francophone"

Do you think this is because he hasn't studied the rules of grammar ?

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