We see it all the time, right? Kids move to a different country with their parents, and while the adult expatriates around them stumble through new vocabulary and grammar, the kids are running circles around them. In just a few months, kids are speaking in complete phrases and sentences, and they have a host of new friends.
It’s enough to make most adults jealous. I read article after article talking about children’s plastic brains and how, even if adults can learn languages to native level, it’s certainly much more difficult after a certain age.
Personally, I think a lot of this kind of thinking is neither true nor truthful, and it only serves to discourage adult language learners.
I don’t dispute the existence of a “critical period” (a time period in which a language must be acquired) in terms of the acquisition of a person’s first language. Meaning, it seems like there is evidence that, without some form of communication or language before the age of six or so, acquisition of a language is severely impaired afterwards (although, the research with Genie (Genie is a woman who was neglected as a child– she had no interaction with language until she was released from her parents’ house at the age of 16) was so messed up with personal and bureaucratic issues that I don’t think it’s conclusive– Genie was picking up more and more words and was attempting to communicate before her therapy was cut short.) Additionally, it may be true that before a certain age, children acquire languages differently than adults. Adults, after all, have the ability to read, and they use abstract reasoning– these aspects clearly affect how adults learn.
However, I think that adults view children as linguistic sponges mostly because we overlook crucial aspects of children’s lives that we forget as we age. These things have little to do with language and everything to do with the fact that children are treated a certain way by their peers and by the adults around them.
Childhood generally brings with it the double advantages of negative and positive pressures. These two pressures help kids achieve linguistic milestones seemingly effortlessly. Of course, there are other advantages such as total immersion, which adults often avoid when they move to other countries. But total immersion aside (and this counts a lot), here is how negative and positive pressure affect children’s language learning.
1. Negative Pressure: Other kids are evil.
Nah, I don’t have my own hang-ups about this– not at all 🙂 But seriously, I think adults, especially adults who don’t spend a lot of time with children, have a huge amount of difficulty in remembering this not-so-wonderful part of childhood.
When kids start hanging out with a group that doesn’t speak his/her native tongue, they’re immediately branded as outsiders. Kids don’t much like being outsiders. They don’t want to be different. Being part of the group means everything to them.
So, do you think a sub-par accent is going to get past the peer group? What about poor grammar or incorrect word usage? Jeez, even as a native English speaker living in the United States, I was teased if I pronounced a word wrong (“nostalgia” was a culprit) or used it incorrectly.
Kids tease and bully, and these things cement language acquisition. Even as a person who learned languages seriously only as an adult, I can attest to these effects. I used a word incorrectly in an online French chatroom (making it, accidentally, into a very, very inappropriate phrase) and the other people online found it absolutely hilarious. I was embarrassed at my mistake, and I mostly certainly didn’t make the same one again. And this pressure was only in a chatroom on the internet– I still lived in my native country and I could have left French forever if I wanted to. Kids don’t have that option, and the sink-or-swim attitude, I think, accelerates their language learning.
2. Positive Pressure: Everyone Assumes They Will Succeed.
This here is your self-fulfilling prophecy. Human beings are very susceptible to others’ perceptions of them and their own perceptions of themselves. Because adults believe so strongly that kids learn languages easily, kids simply accomplish the task.
To put it as a cliché, failure just isn’t an option. Literally no one thinks about it. The kids assume they will succeed at acquiring the new country’s language because their teachers don’t doubt they will, and their parents don’t doubt it either.
I think this bias is so strong that adults fail to notice when kids are struggling. Kids do pick up playground language pretty fast– within a couple of months. However, essay-writing, debating, and other school and work requirements are complicated and take more work. Kids might struggle with writing in their second language long after everyone around them assumes that they know the language at a native-level.
Adult learners, on the other hand, don’t realize they have the same capacity to learn languages. They don’t look at language acquisition as simply a function of effort+time, and this is one of the reasons they struggle. Beginner adults don’t have the same unflagging confidence, or the same support from friends and family. A quick romp through the internet will remind you how much harder it is to learn anything as an adult. 😛
Additionally, languages have a weird quirk that makes it difficult to remember when we struggled with them. This is very evident in adults who learned a second or third language young, but even adult learners can have a hard time thinking back. I know I struggled with French (my first L2) when I started, but I can’t remember too much of that. When I look and hear French, it feels natural, like I’ve always known it, or like other English speakers could surely understand it as well as I do. This obviously isn’t the case, but if I didn’t keep starting new languages, I think it would be pretty easy to completely forget what it’s like to struggle as a beginner.
Kids are different than adults, just not in the ways that we assume they are. Kids’ lives are structured differently, and that counts for a lot when they acquire any skill, not just new languages.