In my Vietnamese class, one of the students asked the teacher how to tell time. The telling time lesson was meant for chapter ten, but because it came up, the teacher took about twenty minutes and taught us. It was really a quick lesson because she just had to tell us a phrase in Vietnamese and say, “This is ‘what time is it?’ This is ‘nine o’clock’. ‘Ten minutes after nine’, ‘ten minutes to nine’ and ‘nine thirty’.” That was it. Now we can all tell time. Yes, we need a bit of practice, but we can function after just a few minutes of linking a concept we had in our L1 (native tongue) and linking it, using our adult brains, to a concept in Vietnamese.

An ESL teacher keeps writing me, insisting that children under six learn languages faster than adults. Obviously, I don’t agree. It is a fact that kids never come in and ask for a lesson on a particular point of language which they feel they need. And teaching kids to tell time in English is impeded by the fact that they can’t tell time well in their own language. Once again, what is it that children do better? Or what makes them better learners?

This is the third article in a series which explores the notion that children allegedly learn languages faster than adults. In the two previous articles, I cited examples of why I believe adults learn faster than children. So, before commenting, you may want to read the first and second articles.

Since the second article was published, people from around the world have been commenting, and I would like to address some of the comments. An important observation I have made, however, is that people who support the unconventional theory that “adults learn faster than children” all quoted actual research, published theories or sound real-life experience. Many of them were adults who had studied a foreign language to a high degree of function in adulthood. The people who argued that children learn faster seemed to be drawing on emotion and belief. None of them quoted an actual study or published research. Many of them cited their own inability to learn a foreign language as the base for their argument.

My personal belief is that if these people can convince themselves that only children can learn languages well, then they could be alleviated of the guilt of their own laziness in learning a foreign language. The could tell themselves, “I didn’t quit after ten lessons, no, the deck was stacked against me. I’m too old. It’s not my fault.”

Comments

I have changed the names of the people who wrote comments. If I was able to follow up on them or if I already knew their personal language history, I have included it.

C3P0: “I’m 100% with you on this. For years, I’ve also been trying to fight the myth that children learn languages faster than adults. You’ve provided some good ammunition here, man.”

C3P0 is ESL qualified, raised bi-lingual and has a masters in education. He has been learning Vietnamese with private tutors, as well as through self-study and has achieved an extremely high level of academic fluency in a period of only 18 months. I challenge any detractor to find me a child under six who can read, write and speak a foreign language better than C3P0, or to even learn a language through self-study at all.

ALG Prof:  “For about the last ten years the myth has been well and truly busted by researchers who have shown that adults are better learners than children. It is probably the use of outdated ineffective methodologies that give teachers a reason to still believe the myth. Basically no matter what you do with a young child they will learn, that is there advantage, they don’t use their intellects. Adult intellects combined with poor approaches to teaching language are the reasons the myth is sustained.”

ALG Prof has an advanced degree and has been a university lecturer in Asia for years. He is also involved with ALG research and has an interest in studying analyzing languages. In other conversations and in our parallel research, we have agreed that modern teaching methodologies are terrible. One thing that the ESL teacher in Asia must remember when he is struggling with Chinese or Vietnamese but his students are excelling, remember that ESL students are taught through communicative, modern approaches using a variety of materials and mediums such as audio, visual, video, computers, listening, and meaningful interaction with a native speaker teacher who doesn’t speak the local language.

For Vietnamese class we have one textbook and no workbook. There are no videos, no listening exercises, and there are almost no supplemental materials available for purchase. And yes, we are learning faster than kids. If we had access to great videos and things that our students have, we would be doing even better.

Afrikaner: “I agree with you, Antonio. I also used to think kids learn languages faster, until I started teaching in Taiwan. It’s interesting how little most kids learn in ten years from kindy to the end of elementary school as compared to adult learners learning Chinese in six months to a year at NCKU.”

Afrikaner was raised bilingually. He had been teaching ESL for many years in Taiwan and was originally discouraged about learning the language. He enrolled in an intensive course at the university and realized that he learned more in a month of school than he had in years of living in Taiwan. And of course, once he started studying, he learned faster than his students learned English.

A parallel point I would like to make here is about the myth of immersion. Most foreigners living in a foreign country get less than twenty meaningful minutes of language exposure each day, eighteen of which are the same as the previous day. In seminars, I have asked foreigners in Taiwan to keep a language journal and record all of their foreign language interactions on a daily basis. At the end of the week most of them said their only exchanges in the foreign language were in buying food, filling the motorcycle with petrol, and so forth, all things they knew how to say at the end of their first month.

The only way to learn a language is through study, full stop. If living in a foreign country produced results the all of the foreigners living in Taiwan or Vietnam would be fluent. After only a few weeks of studying at university I passed people who were living in the country for ten years.

The way this concept relates to the myth that children learn language faster is: A foreigner stops studying the local language. A year later, his students have learned more English than the amount of local language he has learned. The foreigner says, “I am living in the country. I am immersed, and yet this child learned faster than me. Ergo, children learn faster than adults.”

The reason the child passed them was because they stopped studying. As anecdotal evidence I knew a missionary family in Taiwan and one in Thailand where the kids attended the international school, while the father attended Thai or Chinese lessons. At the end a year, the father was fluent in the local language and the kids had picked up a few words or phrases, the same as any adult who doesn’t attend school.