Do Adults Learn Languages the way Children Do?
Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here.
I got through my presentation for the conference in Moscow. If I can figure out how, I will try to make a video in Russian and also in other languages based on the slide presentation that I developed for this conference in Moscow. I was able to watch some of the other presenters, including our good friends Luca and Richard who were actually in Moscow making presentations. Luca was talking more generally about language learning and Richard was talking about how to bring up multilingual children.
Both presentations were very interesting.
I didn't sit through all of it because it was breakfast time here. I did see more of Luca's presentation than I did of Richard's and a lot of what Luca says I thoroughly agree with in terms of finding your own path, doing the things that you like to do, focusing on interesting content, staying motivated, all of the sort of aspects of attitude that are so important, making use of dead time, the advantage of modern technology and so forth and so on.
Of course, there are areas where Luca and I differ or Richard and I differ or Luca and Richard differ.
But, in essence, we don't differ because we all agree that each person has to find their own path and has to do things that they find enjoyable. One of the things Luca was pointing out or asking was whether or not we can learn the way children learn. I think he sort of implied that we can and that children have so many advantages over us in that they have more exposure to the language, they aren't inhibited, they're not afraid to make mistakes and so forth and that they are corrected all the time.
Everything that Luca said I agree with, except for one thing.
I don't believe children are corrected all the time. That's something I hear always, that children are constantly corrected by their mother or by their parents and that's why they speak their native language so well. I don't believe that. I do believe and I do agree with Luca that, essentially, the way we learn our second language is the same process as the way we learn our first language. In other words, we learn from exposure to the language. The brain starts to sort out how this language works. There are differences, of course. Some of the differences Luca pointed out. I'll go to my own experience.
I was born in Sweden.
For the first five years of my life, I only heard Swedish. Well, not only because my parents also spoke German at home, but I have no recollection of that. I do know that I arrived in Canada at the age of five only speaking Swedish. I have no recollection of moving from being a person who only spoke Swedish to a person who only spoke English. Within a year or two, I could no longer speak Swedish and I just spoke English as if it was natural.
I learned my English at school.
I learned it from my peers. I doubt if my mother ever corrected me. She might have corrected me. How much can she correct? Basically, we pick up language from exposure. I don't believe that children let's say in Canada or the U.S. whose parents are not native speakers of English will necessarily be poorer speakers of English because they'll pick it up in the school yard and in school and it won't be because they're corrected. If anything, we are corrected more often when we learn our second language at school. We're constantly corrected and we end up unable to speak that language. The difference is the amount of exposure and that's where I entirely agree with Luca.
We get so much exposure in our first language.
Some might be from our parents, some from our peers, but it's not that we're corrected it's that we get so much more exposure. Now, if we look at the differences between adults and children I can think of my own example. I was only interested in communicating. I was not interested in being corrected. I was not concerned about how I sounded. I didn't notice if I made mistakes. I gradually picked up on how things were supposed to be said.
So the children, from the point of view of attitude, the biggest advantage they have is they're not worried about how they sound, they only want to communicate.
So if we as adults were able to have a similar attitude, to just focus on communication and not worry about how we sound, we would do a lot better and we would probably become more attuned to how the language is used and naturally pick it up. So that's one difference. The children are only interested in communicating. They get a lot more exposure, they're only interested in communicating, but the process is the same.
Now, obviously, adults have certain advantages.
I should say before we move to advantages, adults have a disadvantage and that is that their brain has already kind of coalesced around one language. This now is sort of interference insofar as learning a second language, but that needn't be a big obstacle, as was the case with my moving from Swedish to English, if we get enough exposure. However, if we allow our first language to influence us then it will.
I'll use the example of my father.
My father spoke English very well. He lived in Canada for 30 years until he passed away and he was forever influenced by the way he felt English should be pronounced. As an example, there's a province in Canada called Nova Scotia. S-c-o-t-i-a, Nova Scotia, that's how it's said in English. To him, it was always Nova Scotia. To him, he felt it should be Nova Scotia. Because if he were at all interested in pronouncing it the way native speakers pronounce it, he would have said Nova Scotia.
We see all the time that we are influenced by how words are pronounced in our own language.
I've used this example that a Spanish speaker might saw or _ instead of ‘word' and kind of refuses to notice that ‘word', ‘bird', ‘heard', ‘third', the ‘o', ‘i' and ‘ea' vowel sound are all pronounced the same. So if we want to improve our pronunciation, if we pay attention to what we're listening to and if we get enough exposure, we can actually get quite close to native-like pronunciation. But very often in the case of the adult, there is that interference from his or her native language.
The other thing, if we now talk advantages, of course, is that the adult has a much larger vocabulary in his or her native language, has a broader life experience and, therefore, can learn a lot of vocabulary and can become capable of expressing quite sophisticated or complicated concepts in a new language faster than a child.
I'll use, again, my own example. Within a year of learning Czech, I can read books on history, I can understand political interviews. I don't think a four-year-old child after one year of Czech would.
So those are some of the differences, but the actual process of learning, I'm quite convinced, is very similar.
Now, again, with regard to grammar an adult may spend more time reading some grammar rules.
I'm not an extreme Krashenite. I think that reading grammar rules and studying grammar tables does help, to some extent. It helps us notice things in the language, just as being corrected, which Krashen has demonstrated in numerous research articles, has very little effect. I'm sure that's correct, but in my experience it has some effect. It's part of those little things that help us notice. Massive exposure helps us notice because, again, the first time through you don't notice a thing and by repeatedly listening and reading you start to notice more and more.
I still believe that the essential process of learning is the same.
In other words, it's largely through exposure, massive exposure, exposure to things of interest and that willingness to engage in meaningful communication. If we as adults had as much exposure as the child has and had the same attitude of not worrying about how we sound then I think probably adults can learn, maybe not quite as well when it comes to pronunciation because our brains are more sort of rigidly predetermined now to process the native language, whereas the child is more flexible in that regard. But we can learn, by and large. To different degrees we can be as successful, better on the vocabulary side, maybe less capable on the pronunciation side. Adults can learn, as well, but I do believe that, essentially, the process is the same.
If I can figure out how I can make an iMovie out of my PowerPoint keynote presentation I will do so, first in Russian and then in other languages.
Thank you for listening, bye for now.