Do children have all the advantages when it comes to learning a foreign language?
This article looks at the fundamental general differences between language learning amongst adults and children.
Talk to any family who have moved abroad with young children and you’ll soon find out that whilst the children have had no problem learning the language of the new country (and have often become almost bilingual), more often than not their parents are still struggling to come up with even the most basic of foreign phrases.
Indeed the overall perception is that children find it relatively easy to learn a foreign language and educators the world over encourage parents to introduce their children to a second language as soon as possible: they younger, the better!
The reason behind this is that unlike adults, children tend to learn concepts and ideas at the same time as vocabulary and grammar, absorbing the language as a whole rather than breaking it down into parts. They also approach language learning without all the hang-ups that adults have about looking foolish if they make a mistake and being reserved in public because of this.
Their brain is still developing and as a result it absorbs speech patterns more readily and can pick up subtle differences in sounds that an adult just does not hear. And as any parent will testify, pronunciation is barely an issue when teaching very young learners if they have a teacher who speaks the language at native or near-native level.
Finally, the child’s natural inclination to fall into play and socialize easily, and their need for immediate gratification, allows language teachers to use varied and fun memory tools in their language teaching to enhance the learning process. Wise TEYL teachers use plenty of activities with movement, games, songs and so on to create a stimulating learning environment.
So it would seem that children have a head start when it comes to learning a new language.
But let’s not forget that adults also have a few advantages children lack.
Even though adults tend to learn a new language in the context of a previous language (i.e. learning by translating) they have more developed analytical abilities and greater powers of abstraction than children. Thus explicit comparison with their mother tongue and specific rule-based grammar instruction can help them in their studies. Their ability to conceptualize can also help them understand how a new language works as they can refer back to what they already know about their own MT and apply it to the new language.
Of course teachers will need to guide them through this process as it is not always possible to apply the rules of our own MT to a new language but having a point of reference can be extremely useful.
Pronunciation, meanwhile, is a sticky point when it comes to adults as many find it hard to get rid of their strong MT accent.
On this score, however, it’s worth remembering that pronunciation is not in itself an indicator of fluency and when it comes to languages the reason we are learning them is primarily to communicate with other people who do not speak our own so as long as we can do that fluently and effectively, any pronunciation problem takes a back seat. Additionally the ability adults have to analyze language in its various elements will help them with identifying and correcting pronunciation problems – providing of course they have the right guidance!
Given the same resources and guidance both adults and children can succeed in their language learning. What they both need is a stimulating learning environment, interesting and relevant resources, engaging activities, trained teachers, and expertly developed language programs.
A good TEFL teacher will be able to tailor their lesson towards the more analytical adult or the more instinctual, dare we say “natural”, child.
Teaching English to Adults – an overview of how this works
Teaching English to Teenagers – an overview of teaching to this age group
Teaching English to Young Learners – dealing with young learners
Train to Teach English – a training course to teach English