When I was studying Chinese in Taiwan, at the end of eight weeks, I was reading texts that my second grade students could not read. The children were Chinese native speakers, but hadn’t learned all of the Chinese characters I had at that point. To be fair, the students could also read things I couldn’t and were on the whole more fluid than I was in Chinese. But a second or third grader would never have been able to pass the national Chinese exam required of foreigners wishing to enter university. A particular lesson I remember showing my students was my Chinese lesson entitled “At the Bank.” In their native tongue, children don’t learn words such as ‘change money,’ ‘currency,’ ‘write a check,’ or ‘make a withdrawal.’

In my Vietnamese class, we are only on chapter two, but have already learned words for ‘changing money’ and the names of currencies. In the adult English class, chapter two is even more advanced.

As for counting, we can all count to a million after only eight days, 32 hours of Vietnamese classes. Child learners won’t encounter the word million in their first year or even two years of English classes.

Since I don’t have money or resources to actually hire adults and kids to put in the same class and monitor their progress, I decided to compare textbooks and see what adult beginners, versus child beginners were expected to do and learn.

This is all of the text from the final page of the children’s beginning English book. Children would be expected to reach this level after forty hours of classes.

1. Meeting friends
Hello.Hi.
Good morning.Good afternoon.
2. Getting to Know You
I’m Tom.I’m a boy.
I’m Tommy.I’m a baby.
I’m Peggy.
3. Playing in the Classroom
Stand, up, please.Sit down, please.
Line up please.
4. My Things
my cupmy book
my toysmy bag
5. My First Picnic
Sorry.Never mind.
It’s OK.
6 My Feelings
I’m cold.I’m happy.
I’m hot.I’m sad.

Here is a sample of what an adult beginner is expected to do at the end of 40 hours of English classes.

6. Complete the sentences with the present continuous of the verb in brackets.

1. She ________________ with her boyfriend (dance).
2. They _______________ their dinner (not eat).
3. The dog _____________ in the river (swim).
4. I ________________a letter (write).
5. He _______________ to me (not listen).

For our Vietnamese class, this is a chapter two dialogue, with English translation. This is at the end of eight days of classes. The textbook does not contain English translations. We are expected to translate for ourselves.

1. Xin lổi, ông là James Baker, phải không a? (Excuse me, you’re James Baker aren’t you? ‘Formal’)
2. Da, phải. Tôi là James Baker. (I’m James Baker.)
3. Tên tôi là Thuy, nhân viên công ty du lịch Sài Gòn. (My name is Thuy, I am an employee of the Saigon tourist company.)
4. Chào cô Thuy. (Hello Miss Thuy.)
5. Tôi đến đón ông. Xe hơi đang chờ ông ở đằng kia. Ông có mệt không? (I came to pick you up. The car is waiting for you over there. Are you tired?)
6. Không. Cảm ơn cô nhiều. (No. Thank you, much.)
7. Mơi ông lên xe.(Please, get in the car.)
8. Cảm ơn cô.(Thank you.)

(Disclaimer: There are three Vietnamese spelling errors in my dialogue because I don’t have a Vietnamese keyboard and had to copy each of these letters from Vietnamese texts I found on line. Can you spot the errors?)

If you compare the three textbook excerpts above, you will find that the child, at the end of 40 hours of English lessons is behind the adults after 28 hours of Vietnamese, and way behind the beginning point of adults in English.

Other factors that have to be considered are discipline, motivation, and focus. Adults don’t just study English because someone forces them to. They study because they need to get a better job, pass a college entrance exam or to create some other opportunity for themselves. Adults are also paying their own tuition and care if they waste their money or not.

As for discipline: When I am teaching young children I spend about twenty to thirty percent of my class time on classroom management, getting the kids back in their seats, and getting them on the right page in the book. They talk while I am talking. They run around the room. And they talk or play during listening exercises. None of my adult students or adult classmates do this. Next, the adults in my Vietnamese class all go home and do hours of homework and revision on their own. My child students don’t even do their homework. None of the children go home and do hours of studying on their own or sit for hours with a dictionary clarifying those parts of the lessons they didn’t understand.

In conclusion, my theory is if an adult and a child attend the same number of hours of classes, the adult will learn faster. In practice, however, adults have lives. They are busy people, and studying is a kind of luxury, which generally takes second place to work and earning money and taking care of their family.

However, given the same number of hours of classes, an adult would learn a language faster than a child. The proof is Monterey Institute, Defense Language Institute, and Middlebury Language Program, all of which can take an adult student from zero to passing a college entrance exam in a foreign language in just one to two years.