Language learning processes in adults and children have advantages and disadvantages. Why do young learners often become bilingual uncosciously and naturally as learning to walk? Are young children the best second language learners? Is there an optimal age for second language acquisition?
I’d like to share with you two interesting articles I read about the myth that young children are the best second language learners.
The author of both is Paul Shoebottom, language teacher for more than 25 years, currently the Upper School coordinator for ESL at Frankfurt International School (FIS) where he has worked since 1987.
Are young children the best second language learners?
A myth, in one of its senses, is a belief about something that is shared by many people, but which in fact happens to be untrue or only partly true. The field of language learning is full of myths and misconceptions, possibly because every literate person has been successful at learning at least one language and so may consider himself to be something of an expert on the topic. The myth that I wish to discuss in the present article is that young children are the best learners of a second language. This is a widely-held belief that contains an element of truth, but which for the most part has been disproved by recent linguistic research (see references at the foot of this page).
One reason why this myth has arisen may be that we are more tolerant of the mistakes of children than of older learners or adults. As an illustration of this, imagine that you are a German bank clerk, living in Frankfurt. On your way to work, you meet your American neighbour’s 3 year old child, who is attending German kindergarten. The child says Guck, ich habe ein neuen Ball. (Look, I have a new ball.) You will probably think How cute! You note how well she’s learning German, and may not even register the mistake in the indefinite article (it should be einen instead of ein). You get to work and the first customer you see is a British woman who wants to deposit some cash. She says: Ich will DM500 auf meines Sparkonto überweisen. Now you will probably not think How cute, but will you think Her German is good! or will you say: Es muss: auf mein Sparkonto sein (correcting the faulty ending in the possessive pronoun)? Of course this is an unfair stereotyping of German bank clerks (although exactly this happened to a British colleague in the bank in her second year here in Germany). However, it does prove the point that we are generally more patient and forgiving of the mistakes of young children than of adults. Indeed, although children make mistakes of both fact and grammar when speaking in a foreign language, they are far more likely to get corrective feedback only when they make a factual mistake. Adults rarely make factual mistakes and so most of the corrective feedback they receive is grammatical in nature. This may be one of the reasons why the myth that young children are the best language learners has taken such a strong hold.
Now consider another reason. Anyone with a young family who has lived for a while in a foreign country will have seen how easily and naturally their children interact and play with others of a different mother tongue. This is very different from how most adults feel when faced with the need to communicate in a foreign language. Many people however mistakenly attribute young children’s comparative ease in new language situations to children’s greater ability to learn language. But this is not the case. The cognitive demands made on a youngster are different from those which confront the adult. With children, everything is in the here-and-now. If they are having a dolls’ picnic, for example, most of the communication will centre around the concrete objects they can see and handle. They also have the right to not to speak and just watch what is happening, or take part silently. Contrast this with the problems confronting the adult who has an appointment with her tax advisor. She does not have the option of being silent, and the whole discussion will be conducted in the abstract mode. No wonder, adults envy children their supposed facility in learning languages! Read more…
What is the best age to start a second language?
Studies have shown that adolescents and adults are in many ways better at learning a new language than children, except in the area of pronunciation. This is probably because they are already literate in their first language and can use some of their knowledge about language and language learning when learning the second language. However, this doesn’t answer the important question: What’s the best age to learn a new language? This question, like most about language learning, cannot be answered so simply. It depends on the situation.
For example, a child who is born to an American father and German mother living in the USA can start to learn both German and English from the moment he is born. This is probably the most favourable situation for anyone who wishes to speak two languages fluently as an adult. A child of school age who emigrates to the USA has no choice, and must start to learn the new language, English, as soon as she arrives. Depending on the age of the child, it can take up several years for her to reach the level of a native English speaker. It is important in this time that she continues her first language development. And it is equally important that she, her parents and her teachers do not have unrealistic expectations about how easy learning will be and how quickly it will happen.
The two situations described above contrast with situations where there is more choice over whether and when the second language is introduced. Either the choice is made by the education authorities in the area where the child lives, or parents can decide on an individual basis whether to enrol their child in a foreign language learning program. It is this last situation that I wish to discuss a little further.
Some specialists in language acquisition claim that the sooner a child starts to learn a second language the better. It certainly seems to make sense that the earlier you start, the longer you will have to learn, and the more progress you will make compared with someone who started later. However, there is evidence that this is not the case, particularly if the second language comes to take the place of the first language, which has never been allowed to develop properly. One researcher* talks of the dangers of double semi-lingualism for early learners of a second language; i.e. the child does not develop full proficiency in either of the two languages. And as mentioned above, it has been found that older learners of a language are more efficient learners, so they may need less time to reach the same level of proficiency as younger learners. Also, of course, if more time is spent learning a second language during the school day, then some other subject must be cut or reduced to make way for it. This may not be desirable.
So what is the best age for a person to start learning a foreign language in situations where there is a choice, and where it is not critical that a native-speaker-like pronunciation is acquired? The answer, according to current research, is early adolescence, so about 11-13. And the more motivated the child is to learn the new language, the more successful he will be! Read more…