Language Acquisition: Do Children Learn Faster Than Adults?

I think that children learn faster than adults. There is ample evidence of this, for example amongst immigrants to Canada. Rare is the immigrant family where the children don’t speak English, or French, much better than their parents.

Can Adults Learn More Like Children?

I also think, however, that adults can learn how to learn more like children and therefore to learn faster. The unfortunate reality is that very few do.

I once had a 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 sometimes even the feeling that their own culture is somehow better. 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. Adults, who think they are quite sensible sounding in their own language, don’t like the feeling of being clumsy in a new language, like a child in a way.

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.

Language Acquisition Takes Place in the Brain, Not in the Classroom

There was a report from the American Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL), entitled Myths and Misconceptions about Second Language Learning. The report seems to conclude that adults are better language learners, but it is clear that these conclusions are based only on classroom learning.

I’m somewhat skeptical of the CAL because for quite a long time I participated in a listserv with members of that organization. They are quite protective of the traditional role of teachers in a classroom. To CAL, it seems, learning can only take place in a classroom.

To me the classroom is often the least important factor in learning a new language, especially for immigrants. What these immigrant language learners do outside the classroom is crucial to their language learning success, yet the majority of research is done based on what happens in a classroom.

The report quoted here, from CAL, is typical of a lot of research about language learning, classroom centred. Here are some quotes from the report and my comments.

“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. Kids learn the new language from their peers, not from the teacher. If they lack that contact with peers, they will do poorly. Those adults who work in the new language, or have friends in the new language, or watch a lot of TV or read newspapers in the new language will learn fast, regardless of what happens in the classroom.

“Teachers should not expect miraculous results from children learning English as a second language (ESL) in the classroom”

Perhaps the teacher should focus more on improving comprehension and encouraging the young learners to enjoy the language and make friends, not to score well on tests.

“Children are more likely to be shy and embarrassed around peers than are adults.”

This is a gross generalization and mostly not true based on my observation. When I meet young Chinese school children here in Vancouver, and hear them speaking Chinese with their parents, I will often speak to them in Chinese. They invariably answer in flawless English. I don’t have the impression they are shy about using English. They are proud to use it.

The report goes on to say:

“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).”

This may be true in the inefficient environment of the language classroom, but that is not the whole story of language learning.

The Adult Advantage: Vocabulary

Cummins (1980) cites evidence from a study of 1,210 immigrant children in Canada who required much longer (approximately five to seven years) to master the disembedded cognitive language required for the regular English curriculum than to master oral communicative skills. In other words, immigrant language learners lack the necessary vocabulary.

It is certainly true that adults have a much larger vocabulary in their own language, more general knowledge and more life experience than children. This can help the adult learner. A seven-year-old child will only have the vocabulary of a seven-year-old child. An adult starts with a base of concepts that the child has yet to acquire.

However, if a child does a lot of reading at their level, and connects with the local culture, and doesn’t rely on the classroom, they will soon be at the level of their peers. That is what I have observed. Even kids of parents who don’t speak English can become outstanding students in a short period of time if they embrace the new culture.

“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 but I doubt if it is good for the kids.

Both Adults and Children Need to Embrace the New Culture

I have seen time and time again, children between the ages of six and nine, who move to a new country and very quickly learn to read, pronounce without accent and communicate easily with their friends.

Their success comes from the desire to fit in with a new cultural milieu and their lack of self-consciousness. The more they are immersed in the new language, and enjoy it, the better they do.

This is an approach that adults can seek to emulate. It is my approach to a new language. I engage in lots of input activity, lots of listening and reading, and then once I start speaking I don’t question myself. I apply my life experience, and the vocabulary that I have in other languages, especially in my own and build from that.

I sort of have the best of both worlds. Because the child will learn to speak better, more naturally and more accent free, he will spend more time in the new language. Also, the brain of the child is more flexible.


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Originally published at blog.thelinguist.com.