Using intellect and discipline adults learn languages much faster than children
By Antonio Graceffo
In my Vietnamese class, one of the students asked the teacher how to tell time. The telling time lesson was meant for chapter ten, but because it came up, the teacher took about twenty minutes and taught us. It was really a quick lesson because she just had to tell us a phrase in Vietnamese and say, “This is what time is it? This is nine o’clock. Ten minutes after nine, ten minutes to nine and nine thirty.” That was it. Now we can all tell time. Yes, we need a bit of practice, but we can function after just a few minutes of linking a concept we had in our L1 (native tongue) and linking it, using our adult brains, to a concept in Vietnamese.
An ESL teacher keeps writing me, insisting that children under six learn languages faster than adults. Obviously, I don’t agree. It is a fact that kids never come in and ask for a lesson on a particular point of language which they feel they need. And teaching kids to tell time in English is impeded by the fact that they can’t tell time well in their own language. Once again, what is it that children do better? Or what makes them better learners?
This is the third article in a series which explores the notion that children allegedly learn languages faster than adults. In the two previous articles I cited examples of why I believe adults learn faster than children. So, before commenting, you may want to read the first two articles.
Since the second article was published, people from around the world have been commenting, and I would like to address some of the comments. An important observation I have made, however, is that people who support the unconventional theory that “adults learn faster than children” all quoted actual research, published theories or sound real-life experience. Many of them were adults who had studied a foreign language to a high degree of function in adulthood. The people who argued that children learn faster seemed to be drawing on emotion and belief. None of them quoted an actual study or published research. Many of them cited their own inability to learn a foreign language as the base for their argument.
My personal belief is that if these people can convince themselves that only children can learn languages well, then they could be alleviated of the guilt of their own laziness in learning a foreign language. The could tell themselves, “I didn’t quit after ten lessons, no, the deck was stacked against me. I’m too old. It’s not my fault.”
I have changed the names of the people who wrote comments. If I was able to follow up on them or if I already knew their personal language history, I have included it.
C3P0: “I’m 100% with you on this. For years, I’ve also been trying to fight the myth that children learn languages faster than adults. You’ve provided some good ammunition here, man.”
C3P0 is ESL qualified, raised bi-lingual and has a masters in education. He has been learning Vietnamese with private tutors, as well as through self-study and has achieved an extremely high level of academic fluency in a period of only 18 months. I challenge any detractor to find me a child under six who can read, write and speak a foreign language better than C3P0, or to even learn a language through self-study at all.
ALG Prof: “For about the last ten years the myth has been well and truly busted by researchers who have shown that adults are better learners than children. it is probably the use of outdated ineffective methodologies that give teachers a reason to still believe the myth. Basically no matter what you do with a young child they will learn, that is there advantage, they don’t use their intellects. Adult intellects combined with poor approaches to teaching language are the reasons the myth is sustained.”
ALG Prof has an advanced degree and has been a university lecturer in Asia for years. He is also involved with ALG research and has an interest in studying analyzing languages. In other conversations and in our parallel research, we have agreed that modern teaching methodologies are terrible. One thing that the ESL teacher in Asia must remember when he is struggling with Chinese or Vietnamese but his students are excelling, remember that ESL students are taught through communicative, modern approaches using a variety of materials and mediums such as audio, visual, video, computers, listening, and meaningful interaction with a native speaker teacher who doesn’t speak the local language.
For Vietnamese class we have one textbook and no workbook. There are no videos, no listening exercises, and there are almost no supplemental materials available for purchase. And yes, we are learning faster than kids. If we had access to great videos and things that our students have, we would be doing even better.
Afrikaner: I agree with you, Antonio. I also used to think kids learn languages faster, until I started teaching in Taiwan. It’s interesting how little most kids learn in ten years from kindy to the end of elementary school as compared to adult learners learning Chinese in six months to a year at NCKU.
Afrikaner is was raised bilingually. He had been teaching ESL for many years in Taiwan and was originally discouraged about learning the language. He enrolled in an intensive course at the university and realized that he learned more in a month of school than he had in years of living in Taiwan. And of course, once he started studying, he learned faster than his students learned English.
A parallel point I would like to make here is about the myth of emersion. Most foreigners living in a foreign country get less than twenty meaningful minutes of language exposure each day, eighteen of which are the same as the previous day. in seminars, I have asked foreigners in Taiwan to keep a language journal and record all of their foreign language interactions on a daily basis. At the end of the week most of them said their only exchanges in the foreign language were in buying food, filling the motorcycle with petrol, and so forth, all things they knew how to say at the end of their first month.
The only way to learn a language is through study, full stop. If living in a foreign country produced results the all of the foreigners living in Taiwan or Vietnam would be fluent. After only a few weeks of studying at university I passed people who were living in the country for ten years.
The way this concept relates to the myth that children learn language faster is: A foreigner stops studying the local language. A year later, his students have learned more English than the amount of local language he has learned. The foreigner says, “I am living in the country. I am immersed, and yet this child learned faster than me. Ergo, children learn faster than adults.”
The reason the child passed them was because they stopped studying. As anecdotal evidence I knew a missionary family in Taiwan and one in Thailand where the kids attended the international school, while the father attended Thai or Chinese lessons. At the end a year, the father was fluent in the local language and the kids had picked up a few words or phrases, the same as any adult who doesn’t attend school.
Net Teacher: “A child’s brain – under 6 years old – is just different than an adult’s. It soaks up languages – and a whole lot more – in a different way, and faster, than an adult’s.”
“A child under 6 can learn 10 or 15 language as NATIVE languages, if some…one who is a native speaker interacts with the child in those languages. (Just listening is not enough; there has to be interaction.) Whereas an adult will never learn even a single language as a NATIVE language. Any language that an adult learns, no matter how long or how well they learn it, will ALWAYS be a second language. A native speaker will always be able to hear that it is a second language.”
“Children under 6 have this capability, adults and even older children do not. The developing brain is just a different thing. It’s not a myth, it’s a fact: children under six learn languages not only faster, but better than adults.”
Antonio Graceffo: This is preposterous! All students at Germerheim reach native speaker fluency in their first foreign language and academic fluency at the college level in their second, myself included. and we all learned it as adults. DLI, Monterey Institute, Middlbeurry, and Germersheim are all programs designed to get adults up to the level of academic fluency in six months to two years of study.
The one point I will concede is that children are able to lose their native accent in a foreign language. BUT this only applies to children in an immersion situation. It will generally not happen in a language school. If we focus on the reality and not the theory, we have millions of Asian kids attending language schools, learning english a few hours per week. And we have adult foreigners who have the option of attending intensive course or not, or doing tons of study or not. If the adults chose to study, they would get better results than the kids.
Just in Chinese I know that my vocabulary is four thousand words. How many words does a Chinese child under six know? How many Chinese words does a non-Chinese child under six know?
Proof that I gave in my lat article was that I copied the final lesson the children were expected to do at the end of forty hours of classes. There was less than ten percent as much language as there was in the adult book. Advanced grammatical applications such as the comparative or tenses can be taught to adults in minutes, where as children need days or weeks.
This actually happened in my Vietnamese class. One of my classmates asked my teacher, “How do you make past tense?” And she told us. Then someone else asked, “As long as we are on the subject, how do you do future tense?” She showed us. We did two or three examples and that was it. It is understood that when we go home at night we do several hours of homework to help us remember, but the lesson took minutes. You can’t teach tenses to children in minutes.
The Commentator: “Some of this particular notion is based on the fact that babies and small children are somewhat passive in the sense that sounds surround them and they cannot prevent them…this means talking and language, etc. plus noise and other stimuli… via the senses, etc. A conscious, aware, alert and motivated learner, despite some or any handicaps can learn things…. Well, anyway, you are right in attacking this basic assumption since children are still learning motor skills and other things….that some and many adults have sort of ‘perfected
Marine LT: I think even way back in the 1980s Brown showed that except in the area of pronunciation, adults were far superior second language learners than children. Antonio, you are just plain right.
Marine LT holds a masters degree in TESOL. He learned Chinese as an adult and has a tested reading ability of three thousand characters. His pronunciation and tones are dead-on in Chinese. He teaches ESL at a university in Taiwan and has read extensively in the field of second language acquisition. He also refuses to teach children because they are too undisciplined.
Professor: Take Net Teacher to pieces. He has obviously never stepped outside of a celta inspired class that damages speakers pronunciation etc. People all over the world acquire natives speaker fluency through exposure. Most tribes people in Africa just spend one year following around the rest of tribe when they intermarry and end up with native speaker fluency. Suggest he is put on the phone with some of the grads from ALG I have thai professors listen to David and the only thing they can say to tell him apart if in the way he speaks not thinks.
Language teaching is full of entrenched individuals with the heads in the sand. If I get time I will dredge out a paper of examples Krashen did and post a link to it
Professor mentions David Long, the guru of the ALG method. David speaks Thai at the native speaker level. He learned it as an adult, by studying intensively for two years. He is admittedly a bad language learner and has never learned any other foreign language. But on the phone, a native speaker would not be able to tell that he was a foreigner. David Long also believes that adults learn faster than children.
MA Teacher: I have an additional perspective on it which is based on the master thesis Im currently researching. Its neither against of for either of your stances on the issue. Its a third perspective. I think the matter is not exactly whether or not children learn faster than adults, adults certainly can learn much faster than anyone has ever given the credit for and children’s supposed innate ability is overrated. To become somewhat of a myth. But the real cause of this myth is because of the nature of education and classes. Because you can’t teach a language, languages are learned- not taught. the orthodoxy of lessons doesn’t allow for the possibility that the lessons themselves are what is hindering adults. And what’s needed is learners making their own choices, since language is a personal journey that everyone must make individually, and no teacher student relationship can improve this unless the teacher allows the student to read and observe unimpeded without interference. So called immersion classes do not mimic real life. The problem is the ELT industry with imposed structure that doesn’t work.
Antonio Graceffo: I strongly agree with everything you have said. I don’t know if you are familiar with the years of work I did on ALG automatic language growth, but I have published widely on the subject. I am not a 100% ALG adherent but you, ALG and I all agree that one of the reasons that the myth survives is that teaching methodologies are extremely flawed.
If we take a traditional approach, then at some point the ESL learner should at some point transition into reading novels and plays and doing book reports or studying subjects taught in English. but this is not part of any ESL program I have heard of.
I studied applied linguistics and worked as a translator in Germany for four years and in our program we were expected to be educated at the same level in German and Spanish that we were in English, which means I have read probably a hundred and fifty novels and countless textbooks or research works in German. most ESL learners never get to that point. And I agree with you that it is because of the methodology.
And yes, mother tongue is learned not taught. Children learn their native tongue or the language of their host country because the entire world is dedicated to the teaching of children. Adults constantly teach words and songs and phrases to children, intentionally, let alone the passive learning which children do naturally.
since most Vietnamese adults are unwilling to follow me around all day teaching m words, the way they do with Vietnamese children, I need to go to school to learn Vietnamese. And as you said, the school model is flawed.
I invite you to comment.
Brooklyn Monk, Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the books, “Warrior Odyssey’ and “The Monk from Brooklyn.” He is also the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries.
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