David Sedaris, the hilariously funny American author, has lived in France for a number of years and written a good number of humorous pieces about his own struggles with learning the French language. In one of his stories, he was standing in line at a bakery. The woman behind him was holding a bright orange ball over her baby stroller, saying to the baby, in French, “ball, ball.” The baby giggled and laughed. The woman smiled and repeated slowly, “ball, ball.” David Sedaris said something to the effect of, “I am sure I could learn French too, if all I had to do was lay comfortably on my back and have smiling people wave objects in front of me, while slowly repeating themselves until I got it.”
Christophe Clugston, an internationally recognized, professional Muay Thai fighter, is a graduate of the famed Defense Language Institute (DLI) and a brilliant linguist, competent at both academic and interpersonal levels, in more languages than most of us would care to count. In a recent email, referencing one of my earlier linguistic articles, Christophe echoed David Sedaris sentiment that the reason children appear to learn faster is simply because people are nicer about helping them.
“If you are and adult, the world is hostile to your learning,” said Christophe. “Others expect you to understand their slang and idiomatic speech.”
People who haven’t studied languages often have no idea that they can’t speak to a language learner, or non-native speaker, in the way, rate, speed, and appropriateness of language, as they would with a native speaker. They see you as an adult, so they talk to you as an adult. If you don’t catch on right away, they simply write you off as stupid, and walk away. With children, on the other hand, people are used to adjusting their speech, dumbing it down, for children. It doesn’t matter if the child is a native or non-native speaker. Most adults have more patience with children. Children are also used to being students. Their entire lives have centered around learning things. So, it is normal for them to ask a question fifty times. And normal for adults to answer them.
With myself, I gave up on asking questions long ago. If you ask a Chinese friend (or a native speaker of whatever language you are trying to learn) “How do you say, language?” They come back with an answer, “blah, blah blah.” The dutiful student, you try to repeat it, but before you have said it twice, they come back with another answer. “Of course, in another context it could be blah, blah blah.” This happened to me in my first week in Taiwan. I made the mistake of asking a Taiwanese man, with a PHD in education, how to say “language.” A half hour later, he was still talking. He had given me no less than seven ways of saying language, and explained each of their usages in excruciating detail. Needless to say, I didn’t learn any of them.
Most people wouldn’t give a child seven different words for language. And when the child asked again, two minutes later, the adult would simply repeat himself. And he will continue to do this, fifty times, till the child learns the word. Try asking a colleague the same question fifty times and see what kind of reaction you get.
I have learned never ask, just listen. When the word comes up in conversation fifty times, then I can own it. Asking is taking a shortcut which is doomed to fail.
Christophe refers to non-language learners as “monolinguals.” It sort of sounds like a disease that needs to be cured. “Monolinguals also have no tolerance for slowing down, trying to explain, using language, that a new learner would probably have mastered.”
Christophe gave this example: I remember someone in the USA asking a native East German “Where do your kin live?” I told the person, there is no way that word is in the lexicon–why don’t you try the word “family?”
The feeling I have on children learning faster is this: a motivated adult could sit down and study a language much faster than a child. BUT, dedicated adults, with unlimited study time, are not very common. What generally happens is a child moves with his family to a foreign country. He attends school or plays with local children all day, while his parents work and spend most of their day using English. By the end of a one-year contract, the parents have only learned a few words of the local language, and the child is talking with ease.
“Children learn faster.” Is always the conclusion people come to. But it isn’t that they learned faster, it was that the adults didn’t put in their study time.
When I was studying Thai in Bangkok, I had two classmates, who were a missionary couple, from the united states. They completed nearly 2,000 hours of Thai listening, in an ALG Thai classroom. Their children, in contrast, were home, with an American governess. Home was an apartment in Bangkok, so, technically, the kids and the parents spent the same amount of time in Thailand. The kids had some limited contact with Thai children, during recess from their home-schooling. The parents spent all of their time at school, studying Thai, and never mixed with Thai people. At the end of the year, the parents could speak Thai and the children couldn’t.
Learning a language is a function of exposure, whether that exposure is studying or immersion. Just being in the country wont do it for you. And just being a child doesn’t mean you will learn a language at all.
Recently, at an English teacher’s conference in Taiwan, a senior trainer told us that it takes a Taiwanese child nine months to learn the phonetics of the English language. This is not surprising. Chinese is a pictorial language. The very concept of reading, as we know it, doesn’t even exist in Chinese. The words are composed of the pictures, and there is nothing about those pictures which coincides with the pronunciation. So, even related words may have completely unrelated sounds.
When Chinese kids first learn English reading, usually around age seven or eight, they have had some exposure to Chinese reading. They try and memorize the shapes of the English words, rather than the sounds. In Chinese, if you see a word for the first time, one you have never studied, you can’t even begin to guess at how it is pronounced. For the kids memorizing the appearance of English words, the same is true. I have literally had children in my class who could read the word “drive” because they had memorized it, but froze when they hit the word “driver” and couldn’t even guess at how to pronounce it.
Both Chinese and English are hard to learn. But, comparing a Taiwanese child learning English, to a foreign adult learning Chinese: it takes a Taiwanese child nine months to learn to read English phonetic. It takes the average foreign adult less than a week to learn the entire Taiwanese phonetic alphabet (BuPuMuFu).
You may not speak Danish, but if someone put a Danish newspaper in front of you, you could read all of the words. Your pronunciation would probably drive a Dane to distraction, and you would have no idea what the words meant, but you could read unlimited pages of text. The same is true for Taiwanese phonetic. At the end of one week of part time study, an adult learner could read unlimited pages of Chinese phonetic. He would have difficulty, and he would struggle and miss pronounce, but by the end of the first month, he would be an expert.
Since I am a proponent of ALG, I agree that the key to fluency is listening. But, having lived a bookish life, I cannot deny the magic of reading. Once you have mastered the phonetic, just weeks into your study, you can then read and study pages and pages and volumes of text, and learn and learn. Your learning would be limited only by the limits of your own dedication and energy invested.
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.