Are children really better at foreign language learning?
Adults can be as strong, or stronger, than children, says Anne Merritt, writing in The Telegraph
It’s the classic ‘old dog, new tricks’ excuse. Many adult learners, in fits of frustration, will claim that adults are simply poor at languages. They say children have more porous minds, better memories, and more adaptability. I’m sorry to report, it’s a myth.
Linguistic researchers have found that, under controlled conditions, adults can be better at language learning. So why does it seem that children have an easier time with picking up foreign tongues? Below are four ways that adults are as strong (or stronger) than children at foreign language learning.
Adults have pre-existing language knowledge
While children are still learning the mechanics of their own first language, adults have a more developed understanding of how language works. Adults already know the more advanced elements of grammar, such as how conjugation works, or what an adverb does.
They already know how to build a sentence, and have a good sense of punctuation and spelling. In children, those skills are still developing.
Moreover, adults have a greater conceptual understanding of language. They are more adept at finding patterns, which means they’re more skilled at deducing and applying language rules.
Pronunciation is stronger in children (but it doesn’t matter!)
It’s true, the younger the learner, the better they are at mimicking new sounds and adopting pronunciation. The brain is more open to new sounds and patterns in pre-adolescence, so it is very difficult for older language learners to speak without an accent.
What’s more, younger learners are more skilled at identifying subtle differences in sounds. This explains why adult learners of English have trouble with minimal pairs like pin and pen, or fries and flies.
While an adult language learner with a strong accent may seem less proficient, pronunciation is not actually an indicator of fluency. Any confusion with minimal pairs can usually be figured out by looking at context.
Furthermore, if you’re studying a popular foreign language like Spanish or French, listeners are used to hearing their language pronounced in foreign accents. Unless the pronunciation is extremely poor, an accent shouldn’t impede communication.
Adults and children are measured differently
Because children use smaller vocabularies and simpler syntax than adults, the standard of fluency for children is lower. Adult communication is more complicated. We’re expected to be able to speak about a broader range of topics and go more in-depth than children do.
Adults also need language for a broader range of settings, such as in the workplace or on holiday abroad. Therefore, adults require more vocabulary and language competence in order to be considered fluent.
Due to these higher expectations, adults typically have more inhibitions about speaking a foreign language. We are more self-conscious, inclined to save face, and are more easily embarrassed. Children tend to be less inhibited, so they can practice communicating without intimidation.
Adults and children both succeed with the same resources
This is a case of opportunity, not ability. Children who learn languages in school have the benefit of an organised curriculum, a trained and experienced teacher, and access to educational materials such as foreign language books, videos, and games.
An adult language learner, in a similar environment, learns languages successfully. National defence institutes and translator/interpreter schools train their students this way: with immersive and expertly developed language programs.
Adults who can’t achieve success in language learning, are often the ones who study at home using educational software or apps. Without teacher support, or steady conversation partners, it’s easy for study to become unstructured.
A benefit of child-oriented language classes is that they tend to allow more play. Songs and chants are commonplace in children’s lessons, along with physical activities like Simon Says. Adult classes tend to be more analytical and conceptual, which could actually be a missed opportunity.
Many linguists will argue the merits of movement and song as memory tools in language learning. It may sound childish, but a good language teacher will lead students of all ages in exercises like Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.
Anne Merritt is an EFL lecturer currently based in South Korea. She writes at annemerritt.com