Learning: Children vs Adults

Recently, I’ve chanced upon a number of articles and blog posts championing the seemingly well established idea that children are much better language learners than adults and that adults will never be able to approach native like fluency except for a few exceptions.

These ideas of children being superior language learners, having brain plasticity, the LAD (lang. acquisition device) active, children with a lower affective filters, as better risk takers – it all has never passed my sniff test. I’m suspicious of these claims, very suspicious and doubtful that they really are true. Despite so many academics making careers based on such claims.

Recently we’ve been given the shock that maybe, just maybe there really is no advantage to being a bilingual (other than knowing that second language). For years we’ve been told over and over that being bilingual adds years to your life, makes you more creative, intelligent, gives you super powers. However, this very comprehensive study throws water on all these claims. I think that maybe, just maybe, the same is true regarding children being better language learners.

Firstly, let me state that I DO believe that children excel at phonological competence. I don’t think it is related to the brain but rather is developmental in the sense that at a young age they are still growing and physiological processes for producing sounds aren’t set. Thus, the child’s ability to really sound like a fluent speaker in their 2nd language and to not develop the traditional accent that adults do.

That said, I’m a firm disbeliever in brain plasticity (Lennenberg, 67) or that there is some special part of the brain active at a special time which makes children better language learners. I call those ideas out. I believe the brain is the brain and language is simply acquired like the rest of experience – through what Frank Smith calls “demonstrations“. The brain is powerful enough to figure out language through thought and doesn’t need some innate predisposition or feature to “create” language.

How does this apply to the idea that children are better language learners? Well, let’s just consider a language thought experiment. Put a baby and a full adult in the same household for 5 years. Both don’t know a word of the L2 being spoken by the residents of the house (mother, father, visitors). Of course for the baby, it will be the L1. Both infant and adult spend all their time together doing the same things, they experience the same language. Let’s ask ourselves after 5 years who will speak the language better, the child or the adult?

Of course in terms of form, of accent and pronunciation – the child will win hands down. But I would bet that the adult would speak the language just as well and naturally as the child. Do you?

You see, it is all a question of time. Adults don’t experience (learn) language near as much as a child would being surrounded by the language. But if you account for the lack of time, I believe adults as just a good or better language learners than children.

It’s not easy to challenge our beliefs but I’d challenge you to do so in this case. For more reading on this and other language learning myths about children, go HERE.

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