brooklynmonk

Children Vs. Adults, Language Learning vs. Acquisition

In Uncategorized on June 29, 2015 at 3:15 am

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By Antonio Graceffo

I largely reject the notion that children learn languages more easily or that if they do, or that this somehow gives them an advantage when learning a foreign language. David Long, the director of AUA Bangkok and the world’s leading proponent of Automatic Language Growth Theory (ALG) said, “We don’t believe children learn physics faster. So, why do we believe they learn language faster?”

All over the world people begin learning English as a child. Across Asia and Europe, English is a core requirement of the school curriculum. And yet all of the professional translators, linguists and people who speak English at a level appropriate to their age and education learned THAT level of English as adults and through study.

My belief is that culturally, our society, all societies, are set up in such a fashion that you teach things to children. I watch a mother playing with her child and she holds up an object and says “ball, ball” a million times. then maybe she says “This is a red ball.” I wish I could pay someone to do that for me. But even with this constant input, it takes years for children to acquire their native tongue. And, acquiring a language is very different from learning a language. Acquiring language generally only happens for the first language is learned in this manner. Here, I am using a loose definition of “first language,” to include all languages widely spoken in the child’s home country. For example, a Swiss person who speaks high German, Swiss German, and French is simply speaking the languages he or she is exposed to and which he or she acquired. Statistically, Swiss are terrible language learners.

At the ALG school in Bangkok, we tracked people by nationality and evaluated who learned Thai the fastest. Swiss were among the lowest scorers. Acquiring language and learning language are very different concepts. I actually had a person who was a PhD in anthropology telling me that he believed Africans learned languages faster. He said, “Africans are such great linguists. I have been in villages where everyone spoke six languages.” First off, a linguist is one who studies language, not languages. Secondly, these people acquired these languages. The test on whether or not an African can learn a language faster than say a Singaporean would be to send them both to school in Latvia.

As an adult, you can use your intellect, discipline, self-control and knowledge of what a language is, to learn a second language faster than any child.

In both Taiwan and Thailand I had friends who were missionary families. The parents went to language classes, while the children attended the international school. A year later, the parents poke the local language, but the kids didn’t. To a thinking man, it should be a no brainer that the one who attended classes learned, but the ones who didn’t classes didn’t. But there is a magical belief that children simply acquire language out of the air. This is clearly untrue.

As for adult discipline, in Taiwan, back in 2002, Chinese textbooks are generally only available in English medium, or occasionally in Japanese. Two Italian priests, who spoke no English, were attending Chinese classes. So they could neither understand the explanations or translations in the book, nor could the teacher help them very much. Where I was able to complete a chapter per day, they could only do one page per day because it took them about 8 hours each evening, to go through the following day’s page, using a paper dictionary, translating each and every word into Italian. Most children couldn’t do that. Had you put 2 ten year-olds in that class, they would simply have failed.

I have had a standing offer, which no one has taken me up on, but I challenge anyone in the world to send me and a 10 year old to a country chosen at random, where neither of us speaks the language, and test which of us learns the language faster.

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  1. Hi Antonio

    I’ve read your blog for a long time, as I’ve a big interest in martial arts especially wing chun & language acquisition. I follow a mostly comprehension led learning approach with languages, ALG, growing participator approach etc

    One thing that did interest me was when that when studying at the university of Mainz, all of your subjects were in German. This is something I have read a lot about with regards to language, do subjects in the language.
    One question, how high was your German level when you first attended the university?

    • I had completed the equivalent of 3 years of German courses at the undergraduate level before going to Germany. When I first got there I had difficulty communicating and couldn’t understand my courses at all. I spent the next several months watching TV and reading novels, in German, on a rigid schedule, where I tried to squeeze in as many hours per day as possible. Six months later, my reading, listening, speaking, and vocabulary were on or above the necessary level, but my grammar and written German were not.

  2. Thank you for your reply. When you mention studying in your posts, do you mean language learning courses or doing subjects and courses in the language?

    The reason I ask is that I’m a proponent of comprehension led methods but thinking of switching, how does the studying sit with you as you are also an ALG method follower?

    • In this article “study” means taking language classes or sitting down with language learning textbooks and reading or doing exercises. One can certainly learn Italian (for example) by attending architectural classes in Italian or German by enrolling in a law school in Germany, but the basics have to be there first. if not, the student will just develop exceptional coping skills but not reach native speaker or near native speaker fluency.

      Checkout Antonio’s website http://speakingadventure.com/

      Get Antonio’s books at amazon.com The Monk from Brooklyn Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves The Desert of Death on Three Wheels Adventures in Formosa

      Date: Sun, 26 Jul 2015 11:07:05 +0000 To: antonio@speakingadventure.com

      • In this article “study” means taking language classes or sitting down with language learning textbooks and reading or doing exercises. One can certainly learn Italian (for example) by attending architectural classes in Italian or German by enrolling in a law school in Germany, but the basics have to be there first. if not, the student will just develop exceptional coping skills but not reach native speaker or near native speaker fluency.

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