My sixth grade students have attended ten hours per week of English classes, at private school, plus several hours per week of English lessons at government school, for six years. They are just beginning to read their first novel, “Charlotte’s Web.”
One of my coworkers, an American, has been in Taiwan for five years. In addition to teaching full time, he has been studying Chinese, for the same length of time as the gifted children I teach. He just started a university program, studying forestry management, taught in Chinese. Not only could my students not pass a similar program taught in English, at an American university, they could also not pass such a program taught in Chinese.
Universities don’t usually allow 12 year-olds to attend. There is a reason for that.
The test of adult vs. child language learning, could be done in this way.
An eight year old child and I would go to Czech Republic, where neither of us knows a word of the language. (We would sleep in separate hotel rooms, though. I am not Michael Jackson.) We would study in an intensive Czech program, the goal of which will be to pass the Czech equivalent of TOEFL or PNDS in order to be admitted to university in Czech Republic.
I have to believe an eight year old wouldn’t even make it through the first day of the program. But I, or any adult, could be nearly academically fluent at the end of a single year of intensive study. And assuming the adult in this example failed the exam, no worries, have him repeat the whole program, and at the end of two years, he would have achieved academic mastery. But the child wouldn’t.
Take my example a step further. Instead of a foreign child learning Czech, take a native born Czech, growing up in Czech Republic, a random school kid, turning nine at the end of this experiment. He would not be permitted to attend university and probably couldn’t pass the admission test, but a foreign adult could.
After being admitted to university and completing a two-years translation program, the same adult could pass a translation exam, reading a Czech newspaper, translating it into English, or an English newspaper, translating it into Czech. A Czech eleven year old, no matter how good his English was by that time, wouldn’t possibly posses the breadth of knowledge necessary to do that same translation. He couldn’t learn the words for the world financial debacle in English, because he doesn’t know them in Czech yet.
All of the experts or professionals I have had contact with recently seemed to agree that the new data suggests that children do not learn language faster than adults. Children are more likely to find themselves either in full time school or in full-time immersion than most adults. But, given the same circumstances, and adult would learn faster. The one difference does seem to be that children who learn a second language before the age of puberty have a higher probability of losing their accent.
The experts seem to be in agreement that these children lost their accent, but they aren’t sure why, or if it even means that children have a clear cut advantage in the accent department or if it is not an anomaly of the way children learn languages in a foreign country.
Please understand, the purpose of this article is not to bash children. It is just that I hope I can motivate more adults to learn languages. Some people believe they are too old. This is simply not true. Given the advantages of intelligence, experience, and knowledge that adults have in learning languages, I guess we could say:
When it comes to learning a new language, you could never be old enough.