Children Learning Languages faster than Adults

In Uncategorized on November 14, 2010 at 4:15 pm

The argument Continues in Vietnam

By Antonio Graceffo


A student enters the University of Mainz, Germany, with no prior knowledge of two foreign languages. Six years later, he emerges, a fully qualified UN-level interpreter or translator.


The program doesn’t allow children.


The Defense language Institute and the Monterey Institute specialize in teaching category three languages, the most difficult, to complete beginner adults, raising them to fluency in one year.


Once again, children are not permitted in the courses.


A survey of people working as professional interpreters would show that 80% of them graduated from less than five universities in the world.


None of them were children.


For years I have been waging a lonely war against the belief that children learn foreign languages faster than adults. This is a commonly held belief, but in discussing it with language teachers none of them seem to be able to produce logical answers beyond the fact that “Everyone knows it’s true.”


My first argument is always this, “do you believe that children learn physics faster than adults?”


The answer is usually a joke, such as, “A child would definitely learn faster than me.” Or, a truthful answer, “No, obviously children don’t learn physics faster than adults.”


My next question is, if children don’t learn physics faster than adults, then why do you believe they learn languages faster?


Here are some of the recent answers I received from teachers in Saigon.


  1. Children learn languages faster because they are so immersed in the language.


A: My counter question to this is, “Why do you believe children are any more immersed than adults?” The person who said this is an English teacher at a language school where adults and children both attend the same number of classes per week, for the same number of hours. There is no immersion in this program. But, if it is true that children are magically more immersed in foreign languages than adults, then this is not a fair comparison. We would have to monitor a child and an adult or a group of children and a group of adults who are equally immersed to determine which group learns a language faster.


Myth busted.


  1. A Canadian teacher gave an example: My father had been trying to learn French on his own for years, studying with books and tapes, but he never became fluent. When the children in the family attended French classes at school, they became fluent in just a year or two.


A: My counter point: A fair comparison would be to monitor an adult and a child both attending school in Canada, and seeing which one learned faster. The other fair comparison would be to give books and tapes to a child and books and tapes to an adult and tell them to learn on their own. Without any doubt, the adult would learn faster, studying on his own than would a child.


Myth busted.


  1. Another Canadian teacher said: “Children don’t learn grammar faster but they learn vocabulary faster.”

A: My counter point: In the native tongue, medical school is one of the most vocabulary intensive courses of study that one could pursue. Obviously, we only allow adults to attend medical school. If we limit our discussion strictly to vocabulary, the course Anatomy and Physiology is one of the weeding out courses for pre-med and pre-RN studies. If children learn vocabulary faster then native speaker children should do better at this course than adults. Clearly, however, this is not the case.


Myth busted.


  1. A British teacher said: “I learned English as a child. And I learned it well, in only three years. I have been living in Vietnam for four years, but I don’t speak Vietnamese well.”

A: My counter point: Once again, he is not comparing like things. When he learned English, his mother tongue, he had people talking to him, non-stop every waking minute, teaching him words, grammar, phrases, and usage. He also observed people using English and learned by listening. Then, at age six he began attending school eight hours per day.


Since arriving in Vietnam this teacher completed a single Vietnamese course which counted for a total of 160 hours. A native speaker child will get that much exposure every few weeks. Over a period of years, the native speaker child will have tens of thousands of hours of exposure.


In order to prove that children learn faster, this teacher would need to attend tens of thousands of hours of Vietnamese classes and fail to learn. Obviously a student with 160 hours of classes can’t compare to one with tens of thousands of hours.


Myth busted.


I am attending intensive, beginner level Vietnamese classes at a university in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. If a new foreign student walks in and claims to have absolutely no prior knowledge of Vietnamese, he is probably telling the truth. With English classes, unless you were born and raised in a cave on a remote island in Kamchatkastan, there is no way you have absolutely zero knowledge of English. Even children, particularly city children from wealthy families, have had some exposure to English prior to starting school.


This would suggest that a beginner English student would be starting at a higher level than a beginning Vietnamese student. And yet, at the end of only eight days of Vietnamese classes, my adult classmates and I already know the entire alphabet. And when I say know, we not only know the sound values of the letters, but we are expected to read texts, write sentences and do grammar substitutions and translations of simple texts.


It takes children a year of formal education to reach that level in their native tongue. Clearly they would need more than eight days to learn to perform similar tasks in a foreign language.


In adult English classes there is an assumption that students can already read the Latin alphabet. As a result, from the first lesson they are already expected to be able to read any English word they encounter, such as “encyclopedia.” They may not know what an encyclopedia is. But they would be expected to read the word aloud. The same is true of my Vietnamese class. Our vocabulary is still quite small, but we would be expected to read any word we encountered.


In the children’s classes, on the other hand, their reading is limited to small three and four letter words and only words they have encountered before.


When I was studying Chinese in Taiwan, at the end of eight weeks, I was reading texts that my second grade students could not read. The children were Chinese native speakers, but hadn’t learned all of the Chinese characters I had at that point. To be fair, the students could also read things I couldn’t and were on the whole more fluid than I was in Chinese. But, a second or third grader would never have been able to pass the national Chinese exam required of foreigners wishing to enter university. A particular lesson I remember showing my students was my Chinese lesson entitled “At the Bank.” In their native tongue children don’t learn words such as ‘change money,’ ‘currency,’ ‘write a check,’ or ‘make a withdrawl.’


In my Vietnamese class, we are only on chapter two, but have already learned words for ‘changing money’ and the names of currencies. In the adult English class, chapter two is even more advanced.


As for counting, we can all count to a million after only eight days, 32 hours of Vietnamese classes. Child learners won’t encounter the word million in their first year or even two years of English classes.


Since I don’t have money or resources to actually hire adults and kids to put in the same class and monitor their progress, I decided to compare textbooks and see what adult beginners, versus child beginners were expected to do and learn.


This is ALL of the text from the final page of the children’s beginning English book. Children would be expected to reach this level after forty hours of classes.


1. meeting friends  
Hello hi
Good morning Good afternoon
2. getting to know you  
I’m Tom I’m a boy
I’m Tommy I’m a baby
I’m Peggy  
3. Playing in the classroom  
Stand, up, please. Sit down, please.
Line up please.  
4. My things  
My cup My book
My toys My bag
5. My first picnic  
Sorry Never mind.
It’s OK  
6 My feelings  
I’m cold I’m happy
I’m hot I’m sad


Here is a sample of what an adult beginner is expected to do at the end of 40 hours of  English classes.


6. Complete the sentences with the present continuous of the verb in brackets.


  1. She ________________ with her boyfriend (dance).
  2. They _______________ their dinner (not eat).
  3. The dog _____________ in the river (swim).
  4. I ________________a letter (write).
  5. He _______________ to me (not listen).


For our Vietnamese class, this is a chapter two dialogue, with English translation. This is at the end of eight days of classes. The textbook does not contain English translations. We are expected to translate for ourselves.


  1. Xin lổi, ông là James Baker, phải không a? (Excuse me, you’re James Baker aren’t you? ‘Formal’)
  2. Da, phải. Tôi là James Baker. (I’m James Baker.)
  3. Tên tôi là Thuy, nhân viên công ty du lịch Sài Gòn. (My name is Thuy, I am an employee of the Saigon tourist company.)
  4. Chào cô Thuy (Hello Miss Thuy).
  5. Tôi đến đón ông. Xe hơi đang chờ ông ở đằng kia. Ông có mệt không? (I came to pick you up. The car is waiting for you over there. Are you tired?)
  6. Không. Cảm ơn cô nhiều. (No. Thank you, much.)
  7. Mơi ông lên xe.(Please, get in the car.)
  8. Cảm ơn cô.(Thank you.)


Disclaimer: There are three Vietnamese spelling errors in my dialogue because I don’t have a Vietnamese keyboard and had to copy each of these letters from Vietnamese texts I found on line. Can you spot the errors?


If you compare the three textbook excerpts above, you will find that the child, at the end of 40 hours of English lessons is behind the adults after 28 hours of Vietnamese, and way behind the beginning point of adults in English.


Other factors that have to be considered are discipline, motivation, and focus. Adults don’t just study English because someone forces them to. They study because they need to get a better job, pass a college entrance exam or to create some other opportunity for themselves. Adults are also paying their own tuition and care if they waste their money or not.


As for discipline: When I am teaching young children I spend about twenty to thirty percent of my class time on classroom management, getting the kids back in their seats, and getting them on the right page in the book. They talk while I am talking. They run around the room. And they talk or play during listening exercises. None of my adult students or adult classmates do this. Next, the adults in my Vietnamese class all go home and do hours of homework and revision on their own. My child students don’t even do their homework. None of the children go home and do hours of studying on their own or sit for hours with a dictionary clarifying those parts of the lessons they didn’t understand.


In conclusion, my theory is if an adult and a child attend the same number of hours of classes, the adult will learn faster. In practice, however, adults have lives. They are busy people, and studying is a kind of luxury, which generally takes second place to work and earning money and taking care of their family.


However, given the same number of hours of classes, an adult would learn a language faster than a child. The proof is Monterey institute, Defense Language Institute, and Middlebury Language Program all of which can take an adult student from zero to passing a college entrance exam in a foreign language in just one to two years.


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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