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.
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".
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 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.
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?
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!
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. ;)
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.
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 .."
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
" 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.
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
"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.
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.
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.
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.
"...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?
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. :)
Most of the time those who write poorly in French are people who don't read / didn't read when they were kids. I hated grammar classes, like all my classmates I guess, and hardly know what they taught us during those classes. I still don't know what an adjectif épithète is or what the position of the COI implies (if it implies anything at all). Yet I write well, because I read many books.
It has nothing to do with people going to school or not. You'll find many engineers, or even professors (this is a shame, really) who make very basic mistakes when they write. They went to school, they got good grades, they're not "uneducated" at all. They just don't/didn't read enough.
I'm not saying studying grammar is harmful or useless, but many people find it very boring.
Obviously, everything I am saying is from the view of a foreigner, and of someone who is learning French as a second language.
I honestly attribute most mistakes in French to just laziness in informal writing. There are so many silent verb endings that can be ommited, or written with a single letter. For example, if you are not Swiss or from the east of France, you probably pronounce 'prononcerai' and 'prononcerais" the same.
There are a lot of grammitical concepts that are starting to dissapear, such as 'dont' and a few utilizations of the subjunctive. I'm not sure this is a bad thing, although I do cringe when I hear "il faut que j'y vais."
I have heard many Africans speak French, and often they speak absolutely impeccably. This is a phenomenon I can't quite get my head around. Maybe French grammar seems really easy compared to that of their African languages?
Well, on Facebook or Youtube it's often laziness, yes. I can assure you though that if you give them a formal text to write, it will be full of mistakes. They won't write "slt" in place of "salut" but they're likely to write "je serai aller" instead of "je serais allé". I see it all the time. At school very few pupils score higher than 10 out of 20 in dictation (one of the worst nightmares of French kids, along with English jelly cake :D) , and you can be sure that a quarter of the class got zero. Even in high school. Run the same test on adults and it won't be much better. I'm in engineering school and we often have to turn in reports. I can tell you that I see some frightening things.
People generally didn't acquire reflexes, they didn't learn to notice things that could help them choose the right spelling. They pick at random the ending that seems best to them between "allé(e/s), aller, allai, allais, allait, allaient".
Yes in general I too find that Africans (born and raised in Africa) speak very well. They're a bit too formal though, so they sound akward sometimes. I don't know why either.
Children's language acquisition is a function of their development, it helps them fit into their environment. If it's a linguistically poor environment, they'll end up with exactly that kind of language, they do not suddenly speak like Shakespeare if all they hear around them comes from Billy Bunter (couldn't think of another example of popular but restricted language).
My granddaughter who is mentally handicapped has learnt English and German simultaneously and copes equally well (or badly, as some might say) in both languages in that she understands, explains and produces words in the appropriate language as best she can. Her spontaneous counting is done in English. German is second choice, althoughiIt now looks as if German were winning since she has started nursery. She goes to all sorts of therapies and has to learn how to pronounce certain letters and how the thing with the article works for certain words - all very much like an adult learner. Her progress is no longer part of her natural speech development, it is steered by adults. The natural, easy learning period is over for her. I bet she too suffers from language fatigue from time to time, just like adults do.
@Jorgis - "At school very few pupils score higher than 10 out of 20 in dictation"
When I went to school, I usually got between 16 and 20 points and I´m sure that most pupils scored higher than 10 points. I´m talking about German dictates in Germany, though.
I wonder if the different results have something to do with the french language/writing system. In German, there are no silent endings, almost no silent letters, no "liasons", no "enchaînements". In general, the written and the spoken language are almost identical.
Writing dictates might be easier in phonetical languages (like German, Spanish and Finnish) then it is in French or English.
Yes it certainly is due to the non-phonetic character of French. You can't trust your ear, even if there are a few tips that can help. When it comes to French spelling, I think being a non-native is an advantage!
I think it's the right word. I just never did it, so I wasn't sure what it was. I saw it once in an English class when I was visiting a German school when I was 14. I was amazed at how advanced all the kids were in English.
German dictation, das Diktat, was always a pleasurable challenge for us, easy-peasy, but English ..... or French ........ We learned German so thoroughly through these dictations that I am now totally lost with the spelling reform, it's very hard to unlearn hard-wired spelling!
To continue off-topic, aren't there things like spelling bees in the States and a huge national spelling competition in France where famous personalities read intricate texts to the participants?
There are many words I'd have to Lingq. Hearing "breitschwanz" must be funny. We always had good laughs in class, followed by intense debates, when the teacher uttered strange words "What? What is this word? Is this really French? One "l", two "n", "s" or two "l", one "n" and "c"? Would you put an "s" here? "-ais", "-ait" ?". Memories...
@Jorgis Thanks for the link to the last of Les Dicos d'or, I used to watch them over a couple of years, but had forgotten the name. I was always floored by the knowledge (and sometimes ignorance) displayed.
I'm honestly not sure, I mean we can't say that French people aren't exposed enough to the language because they obviously are. But it's cases like these that make me wonder why many are against deliberately learning the language. Jorgis brings up a good point when he says,
"I can assure you though that if you give them a formal text to write, it will be full of mistakes. They won't write "slt" in place of "salut" but they're likely to write "je serai aller" instead of "je serais allé". I see it all the time. At school very few pupils score higher than 10 out of 20 in dictation (one of the worst nightmares of French kids, along with English jelly cake :D) , and you can be sure that a quarter of the class got zero. Even in high school. Run the same test on adults and it won't be much better. I'm in engineering school and we often have to turn in reports. I can tell you that I see some frightening things.
People generally didn't acquire reflexes, they didn't learn to notice things that could help them choose the right spelling. They pick at random the ending that seems best to them between "allé(e/s), aller, allai, allais, allait, allaient".
You're absolutely right Steve when you say that children aren't trying to learn a language, they are just trying to communicate with their friends and what not. But I see French people communicating online all the time, and to me it looks like, well....they never actually tried to learn the language. Jorgis also says in an earlier post,
"Most of the time those who write poorly in French are people who don't read / didn't read when they were kids. I hated grammar classes, like all my classmates I guess, and hardly know what they taught us during those classes.
I can understand that people find grammar/grammar classes boring, I get it, it's understandable. But I feel also that this idea that children are naturally more motivated than adults may be true some of the time, but the opposite is also true enough of the time for me to form a valid argument. A child doesn't need to know the difference between "allé(e/s), aller, allai, allais, allait, allaient" to communicate in French. There is not a single Francophone in the world that wouldn't understand if I were to write "j'allaient au magasin quand j'aie vue un oiseau" (or something to that effect). Children can talk with their friends in person or online, have fun, live a normal French life, even if they are not capable of writing a single sentence correctly. They aren't motivated enough to learn correctly because they don't feel that it's necessary, they can do all the things I mentioned above without a problem. I know that the example given is only about writing a language and not necessarily speaking, but writing is still a VERY important part of learning a language overall. However I don't feel that this can only be said about writing. In English, one will hear very often a sentence such as "Me and my friend went to the park yesterday", or "My brother gave a gift to my sister and I". Everybody understands these two sentences despite the fact that they are both grammatically incorrect. But if you were to say either of these sentences you would have no problem being understood. If you aren't deliberately trying to learn a certain language, you may not pick up on mistakes like these because they don't hinder communication. I hope I've been clear.
1) Most people are not interested in deliberately learning their own language. They suffer through grammar instruction at school and rarely worry about it again. Some end up spelling well and others not. There could be many factors affecting their spelling, including possible dyslexia, but more than anything else, the amount they read, as Jorgis said. The number of mistakes that I see in Spanish comments on my YouTube channel is also amazing to me. One of the big advantages of Castilian pronunciation is the difference between the "th" pronunciation of "z" and "c" before "i" and "e ' and "s". It makes it a little more difficult to confuse these letters the way people in Latin America do.
2) if people read a lot, I think they do notice the difference between the different forms of "aller". I believe the spelling is dictated more by the meaning in the context rather than by the sound of the word. It is possible that careless mistakes creep in. I myself regularly make typos.
People make grammar mistakes in their own language, and this is often influenced by what they hear around them. When I visit northern Alberta, where I'm involved in a sawmill, everyone says "I would've went", and "I would've came". Yet these people are exposed to the same grammar instruction in Alberta schools, as people in Calgary. So I believe that the language environment is a bigger influence than classroom grammar instruction. Very few people are keen language learners at school, and even fewer are motivated to buy a book or CD on improving their grammar or spelling or punctuation. This is true of speakers of any language.
3) You seem to feel that you can blitz the grammar in two weeks and then move forward in a language. I know that I can't. I simply would not understand many of the explanations, about the subjunctive in Romance languages or in, say Russian, about verbs of motion, aspect of verbs, the different uses of different cases etc. On the other hand if I revisit the grammar book regularly, I find that I am able to understand and retain more and more each time. This is because I have more experience with the language, have a sense for the language, and have come across these phenomena already.
When I start in the language, my motivation is to acquire words. I know from experience that I need words in order to understand. I know from experience that I need to understand before I can speak. Once I have words, and once I understand, and once I have experience with the language, largely passive, I can then zoom in on grammar and improve the accuracy of my output.
I believe that putting grammar upfront is, for most people, putting the cart before the horse. I believe, that for most people, it is not only inefficient but actually counterproductive. It discourages people from learning languages. That is why the majority of people in language classrooms don't end up speaking the language. Despite the emphasis on grammar in the traditional classroom, they also and up with poor grammar. So the result of classroom language instruction, at least in North America, is poor grammar, poor vocabulary, poor comprehension and poor or non-existant output.
However, language learning is individual. I respect the fact that you have a different approach.
"I mean we can't say that French people aren't exposed enough to the language because they obviously are. But it's cases like these that make me wonder why many are against deliberately learning the language."
Steve often says that deliberately studying grammar can be useful. He´s just saying that "traditional" (grammar based) learning methods are not enough to really learn a language. I´d like to add that the French people we´re talking about did "deliberately" for at least 10 years, so I guess you´re right when you say, that being motivated to master a language is important, even for children and native speakers. (<--- if that´s the point you were trying to make.)
"If you aren't deliberately trying to learn a certain language, you may not pick up on mistakes like these because they don't hinder communication."
I´m not afraid that native speakers will "ruin" my English. ^^ I´d be happy to talk like a native speaker, even if that means making "native speaker mistakes". There are enough grammar-nazis in the world, even on the internet. If somebody writes "Your dumb" on Facebook, there´s a high chance that somebody will respond with " *you´re" and people told me about the "Me and my brother"-mistake approximately 3 billion times.
Sometimes I wonder what kind of grammar books you guys have been exposed to. Any decent grammar explanation should match the very level of the learner, without any more advanced vocabulary or structures than the learner has seen this far.
It feels like that some people here mean that even the most basic grammar explanations are ungraspable. Of course, if you skim a paragraph about word order in subordinate clauses, you're bound to see slightly longer sentences.
@Jeff lindqvist "Sometimes I wonder what kind of grammar books you guys have been exposed to. Any decent grammar explanation should match the very level of the learner, without any more advanced vocabulary or structures than the learner has seen this far."
I started learning Spanish yesterday. I probably only know a couple hundred words that are not cognates to French or English. I really doubt I'll find a monolingual, let alone a bilingual, grammar that will be understandable given my limited vocab. A grammar of Spanish explaining things exclusively in English would be utterly confusing, and I'd expect absolutely useless.
What I mean is that if you're looking up say, adjectives (including gender agreement and maybe word order), you're more likely to see something like this in the beginning of that chapter: La casa es blanca. El coche es blanco. La casa blanca es nueva. El coche blanco es nuevo.
...than something like: "Sus facciones eran expresivas y proporcionadas ,la nariz aguileña, los ojos negros y penetrantes, la frente alta y simétrica y sus cabellos y barba poblados de majestuosas canas." (excerpt from chapter 5, Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott)
On the other hand, a learner who doesn't know what adjectives are, nor conjugations, subjunctives etc. (even in his/her own language), will probably find a grammar book hard to follow.
On the third hand (!) - should the sentences include unknown vocabulary, one could always look them up, or even save LingQs ....
I agree with Steve that learning grammar first is a little backward. I would liken it to teaching someone how to move or exercise. There are certain movements that cannot really be explained until after you have already done them many times and have the experience. Then trying to explain it with terms like "external rotation", "neutral neck", "torque", and others begin to make sense.
For most people, just having them squat is a good start. Do the squat movement enough and you will figure it out and then learning the biomechanics can help later. This is similar to to Steve's word accumulation phase before "zooming" in on the grammar.
I also explained to some of my students that grammar rules are similar to sport rules. If you have never played soccer but learned all the rules, you still would not be good at actually playing soccer. You need the physical experience and the knowledge of the rules to become a good player. Otherwise, you are just a spectator with in-depth knowledge and appreciation.
Maybe it's because children don't have any contact with grammar until they reach the age of 8 or 9 (it depends in what country that child is raised in ) that they are more proficient in learning a language . The thing is that they don't even try to learn their own language or others and maybe that's why they seem incredible .
I believe the less effort we make in learning languages consciously the better the results because I am of the opinion that when we learn something ( no matter what that is ) there is a sort of barrier in our brains that no matter what IQ we may possess , it will hinder more or less the time and effectiveness we dedicate in learning .I mean that we all know that our brain is divided in several sections and that sometimes we acquire information that we didn't even try to store so as to be able to recollect it later.
Also children have less things to worry about , and if be chance you've heard what Stephen Krashen said about the requirements of language learning , he said (among other things) that one should have a 0% level of anxiousness when dealing with languages .