A student enters the University of Mainz, Germany, with no prior knowledge of two foreign languages. Six years later, he emerges, a fully qualified UN-level interpreter or translator.
The program doesn’t allow children.
The Defense Language Institute and the Monterey Institute specialize in teaching category three languages, the most difficult, to complete beginner adults, raising them to fluency in one year.
Once again, children are not permitted in the courses.
A survey of people working as professional interpreters would show that 80% of them graduated from less than five universities in the world.
None of them were children.
For years I have been waging a lonely war against the belief that children learn foreign languages faster than adults. This is a commonly held belief, but in discussing it with language teachers none of them seem to be able to produce logical answers beyond the fact that “Everyone knows it’s true.”
My first argument is always this: “Do you believe that children learn physics faster than adults?”
The answer is usually a joke, such as, “A child would definitely learn faster than me.” Or, a truthful answer, “No, obviously children don’t learn physics faster than adults.”
My next question is: If children don’t learn physics faster than adults, then why do you believe they learn languages faster?
Here are some of the recent answers I received from teachers in Saigon.
1. Children learn languages faster because they are so immersed in the language.
A: My counter question to this is, “Why do you believe children are any more immersed than adults?” The person who said this is an English teacher at a language school where adults and children both attend the same number of classes per week, for the same number of hours. There is no immersion in this program. But, if it is true that children are magically more immersed in foreign languages than adults, then this is not a fair comparison. We would have to monitor a child and an adult or a group of children and a group of adults who are equally immersed to determine which group learns a language faster.
2. A Canadian teacher gave an example: My father had been trying to learn French on his own for years, studying with books and tapes, but he never became fluent. When the children in the family attended French classes at school, they became fluent in just a year or two.
A: My counter point: A fair comparison would be to monitor an adult and a child both attending school in Canada, and seeing which one learned faster. The other fair comparison would be to give books and tapes to a child and books and tapes to an adult and tell them to learn on their own. Without any doubt, the adult would learn faster, studying on his own than would a child.
3. Another Canadian teacher said: “Children don’t learn grammar faster but they learn vocabulary faster.”
A: My counter point: In the native tongue, medical school is one of the most vocabulary intensive courses of study that one could pursue. Obviously, we only allow adults to attend medical school. If we limit our discussion strictly to vocabulary, the course Anatomy and Physiology is one of the weeding out courses for pre-med and pre-RN studies. If children learn vocabulary faster then native speaker children should do better at this course than adults. Clearly, however, this is not the case.
4. A British teacher said: “I learned English as a child. And I learned it well, in only three years. I have been living in Vietnam for four years, but I don’t speak Vietnamese well.”
A: My counter point: Once again, he is not comparing like things. When he learned English, his mother tongue, he had people talking to him, non-stop every waking minute, teaching him words, grammar, phrases, and usage. He also observed people using English and learned by listening. Then, at age six he began attending school eight hours per day.
Since arriving in Vietnam this teacher completed a single Vietnamese course which counted for a total of 160 hours. A native speaker child will get that much exposure every few weeks. Over a period of years, the native speaker child will have tens of thousands of hours of exposure.
In order to prove that children learn faster, this teacher would need to attend tens of thousands of hours of Vietnamese classes and fail to learn. Obviously a student with 160 hours of classes can’t compare to one with tens of thousands of hours.
I am attending intensive, beginner level Vietnamese classes at a university in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. If a new foreign student walks in and claims to have absolutely no prior knowledge of Vietnamese, he is probably telling the truth. With English classes, unless you were born and raised in a cave on a remote island in Kamchatkastan, there is no way you have absolutely zero knowledge of English. Even children, particularly city children from wealthy families, have had some exposure to English prior to starting school.
This would suggest that a beginner English student would be starting at a higher level than a beginning Vietnamese student. And yet, at the end of only eight days of Vietnamese classes, my adult classmates and I already know the entire alphabet. And when I say know, we not only know the sound values of the letters, but we are expected to read texts, write sentences and do grammar substitutions and translations of simple texts.
It takes children a year of formal education to reach that level in their native tongue. Clearly they would need more than eight days to learn to perform similar tasks in a foreign language.
In adult English classes there is an assumption that students can already read the Latin alphabet. As a result, from the first lesson they are already expected to be able to read any English word they encounter, such as “encyclopedia.” They may not know what an encyclopedia is. But they would be expected to read the word aloud. The same is true of my Vietnamese class. Our vocabulary is still quite small, but we would be expected to read any word we encountered.
In the children’s classes, on the other hand, their reading is limited to small three and four letter words and only words they have encountered before.