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Are children really better at foreign language learning?

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Richard Levy  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 03:59
Member (2006)
French to English
+ ...
Are children really better at foreign language learning? Sep 18, 2013

Hi Lucia,

This is really a fascinating subject for me even now after retired from teaching. While I was doing my M.A. in TESOl/ Lingusitics, I remember learning about the ideal age being 12 and under to be able to usually not have an accent when learning a second, etc. language, particularly in a second-language setting.
However, 8 and younger being the best age due to what you stated above, Lucia, about the brain being like a sponge. This was shown in study after study and is also supported by the fact that young children do not have the 'hang-ups" that teenagers and adults often display when learning a new language.

My feeling is that the younger that someone is exposed to a new language (s), the easier and more willing that he/she will be if and/or when this is replicated during their lifetime.


 

Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 15:59
Chinese to English
Just look at the brute numbers Sep 19, 2013

A child learning their first language takes about ten years of near continuous immersion to get to a reasonable level of fluency. An adult learning their second language can get pretty fluent if you give them an hour a day of lessons for five years.
Obviously that comparison is not fair, but it's not obviously less fair than many of the comparisons made between adult and child language learners.
It seems clear to me that adult learning is better than we often think it is, and probably as good as child learning. It may well not be exactly the same as child learning, though, and the differences are interesting.


 

Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:59
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Theory and practice Sep 19, 2013

Never mind the academic studies and theories; just watch it happening. Over a period of years when I lived in Florence, I watched visiting American academics putting their children through Italian schools for a year or two (and they said the Italian schools were much better than American schools). The children were very quickly speaking beautiful Italian, whilst the parents struggled to even put a sentence together.

Case proven. No need to ask the question.

[Edited at 2013-09-19 07:35 GMT]


 

Kay Denney  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 09:59
Member (Apr 2018)
French to English
Ah but Sep 19, 2013

But Tom in London were the parents going through schooling too?

I know plenty of people here in Paris who have been here for years without learning French, but they are mostly mingling with the ex-pat community and speaking in English only at work. This is often exacerbated when it's a couple who come over: single people typically make more efforts to meet others. Of course I'm talking more about effort than ability, but then, how far can you distinguish the results of one or the other?


 

Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:59
Member (2008)
Italian to English
No Sep 19, 2013

Texte Style wrote:

But Tom in London were the parents going through schooling too?



No; the American parents were imprisoned behind all their prejudices and preconceptions and had many obstacles to overcome before they could get some hold on the language spoken by Italians. And they didn't spend any time with Italians. For them it was to do with buying food or dealing with bureacracy, or talking to the Italian teachers.

Some of them did have Italian lessons. But their children had no Italian lessons at all. They just went to school and - hey presto - were "totally immersed". They adopted Italian as the language they used to speak to one another, and used English as the grown-ups' language.

I think the idea of having a language as the childrens' private language (of which the grown-ups can understand very little) may go along with the idea of children having their own private world, away from the grown-ups. A kind of freedom.

[Edited at 2013-09-19 09:56 GMT]


 

Lincoln Hui  Identity Verified
Hong Kong
Local time: 15:59
Member
Chinese to English
+ ...
Adults are also bad at logic Sep 19, 2013

Tom in London wrote:

Never mind the academic studies and theories; just watch it happening. Over a period of years when I lived in Florence, I watched visiting American academics putting their children through Italian schools for a year or two (and they said the Italian schools were much better than American schools). The children were very quickly speaking beautiful Italian, whilst the parents struggled to even put a sentence together.

Case proven. No need to ask the question.

[Edited at 2013-09-19 07:35 GMT]

Today I saw a translator who was bad at logic. Therefore, all translators are bad at logic.


 

George Hopkins
Local time: 09:59
Swedish to English
Yes, it comes naturally Sep 19, 2013

My two youngest grandchildren, two boys now 6 and 8 years old, were born in France of their Swedish-speaking parents (both native speakers) and they live there and go to school there. They speak Swedish at home but otherwise have little chance to practise their mother tongue other than during visits to Sweden -- when considerable improvement is noticeable after a few weeks.

They are fluent in both languages but there is no doubt that their French is better than their Swedish. (I must admit however that I do not speak any French).

The older boy complained recently that he knows lots of French swearwords but no Swedish!

When playing together they can switch from one language to the other, but do not mix them -- it's either one or the other.


 

LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 03:59
Russian to English
+ ...
When immersed yes, when learning in school -- no Sep 19, 2013

From what have observed children may learn much faster than most adults when immersed in the language completely. In school environment, learning the language with the second language teaching methods, I don't think so. I think many adults may actually be learning languages much faster in such environments.

Also children may have better accents, since the vocal cords are not fully developed until puberty. Some people may take a very good accent for being fluent.


[Edited at 2013-09-19 13:12 GMT]


 

Kirsten Bodart  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 09:59
Dutch to English
+ ...
Language learning as an adult Sep 19, 2013

really depends on three big things:

1. Do you know general grammar features? Do you know there is such a thing as 1st, 2nd and 3rd persons singular and plural? Do not assume (like in English for example) that 1st and 2nd person singular are one and the same. Do you know why you use -ly sometimes and other times you don't? And other basic things like this. That helps you to recognise things and use them. Also don't assume that, to express a perfective feeling, you will need an auxiliary verb.

2. Can you accept things are different? Do you easily go with the flow when it comes to a language working differently or do you persist in asking why? My first German teacher spent several hours on explaining to the half of our class that hadn't had Latin lessons why the accusative case existed. We could have saved ourselves a lot of time if everyone had just accepted it. Ultimately, there is no other way anyway.

3. Lastly, do you have hang-ups about just blurting things out and seeing whether people understand you? My husband loves it and I don't. He is fluent in at least 7 languages, I am in 2.5. I'd rather die than blurt something out if I don't know it's going to come out at least OK, if not perfect. On the other hand, I'll have a much higher level reading than he does.

The answer to problem 1 is to identify and away you go, but it is important you know what you're doing. This is easier if you are no longer a child, because you will have learnt these things (ideally) and come across them when learning other languages.

The answer to issue 2 is to accept everything that comes your way and revel in it. Yes, negations are in a different place in Russian than they are in English, but it is like that. Still, there are people who have difficulties in leaving behind what they have always known.

The answer to issue 3 is unfortunately that that needs a therapist to get overicon_wink.gif, if you can get over it at all. If you are a very extroverted person, you will be able to learn much faster and possibly better, more colloquially. If you are reserved, you will need help to build self-confidence.


 

LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 03:59
Russian to English
+ ...
I agree with most of the points, however, Sep 19, 2013

some children are almost exactly the same way. I would never say anything in any language unless it was almost perfect and adult sounding -- just an example. I still probably would not, and yet I somehow speak a few languages, quite well.

In my experience, it is easier to teach adults than children, although I do not have that much experience with teaching languages -- mostly the theoretical background and 2-3 year experience part time.





[Edited at 2013-09-19 15:13 GMT]


 

Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 13:29
English to Hindi
+ ...
Languages are not foreign to children Sep 19, 2013

Children confront languages as their own languages when they get an opportunity to face them properly. The concept of foreign language is an adult-oriented concept. When an adult has already learnt a language in childhood, all other languages become foreign languages to him/her, unless of course he/she has been exposed to some of them in childhood in which they all potentially are his/her mother tongues.

So this comparison is meaningless.


 

LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 03:59
Russian to English
+ ...
We may also consider the possibility Sep 19, 2013

that some people don't consider any languages foreign.

 

Nicole Schnell  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 00:59
English to German
+ ...
The accent theory Sep 19, 2013

LilianBNekipelo wrote:
Also children may have better accents, since the vocal cords are not fully developed until puberty.


This theory is highly controversial. It makes a huge difference if a child moves to another country and is surrounded by native speakers, or if the child learns a new language from its teachers who, in nearly all cases, are non-native speakers of the language they teach. All children learn by imitation and the first thing they learn and imitate is their teacher's ear-grinding accent.

LilianBNekipelo wrote:Some people may take a very good accent for being fluent.


I agree.
I know a teenager (her parents are diplomats) who was born in the US and spent her childhood - due to her parents' profession - in various countries, including Germany and France. Whatever language she speaks, she speaks it accent-free. Her vocabulary, however, is a different story. Back in the US, she was even kicked out of her soccer team because she couldn't understand the commands that the soccer coach was yelling.


 

Helena Chavarria  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 09:59
Member (2011)
Spanish to English
+ ...
Adults have to do more in less time Sep 19, 2013

It takes four years to speak any language like a four-year-old, 15 years to speak like a 15-year-old, and so on.

A 25-year-old adult can't learn 25 years of any language in only a couple of years.

It's simple, the younger you start, the less you need to learn and the more time you have to do it.

If a six-year-old comes out with 'big', 'little', fat', 'thin', 'happy', 'sad', and short sentences, they're doing very well, but I doubt many adults would be satisfied with speaking like a six-year-old!


 

Marijke Singer  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:59
Member
Dutch to English
+ ...
It depends on the person though Sep 19, 2013

Tom in London wrote:

Never mind the academic studies and theories; just watch it happening. Over a period of years when I lived in Florence, I watched visiting American academics putting their children through Italian schools for a year or two (and they said the Italian schools were much better than American schools). The children were very quickly speaking beautiful Italian, whilst the parents struggled to even put a sentence together.

Case proven. No need to ask the question.

[Edited at 2013-09-19 07:35 GMT]


My nationality is Dutch. I grew up in South America where I went to British Schools. I speak three languages fluently: English, Spanish and Dutch. No foreign accent (a Northern accent in English but that is another story). My mother spoke Spanish beautifully but my father always kept his foreign accent even though his vocabulary was extensive and he already spoke 4 other languages very fluently as well as Dutch. Either you are a chameleon or you are not. That is my take on this.


 
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