Who Learns Languages Faster: Adults or Kids?

Who Learns Languages Faster: Adults or Kids?

 

Lin is a 5-year-old Chinese girl, and she invites her 27-year old mom to learn English with her.

“Oh sweetie, mommy is too old to learn a new language!” Her mom, Wei, replies.

“That’s not true!” Their English teacher claims and they decide to do an experiment.

Lin and Wei have an instructional English class in China for one hour.

Guess who learns more?

 

27-year-old Wei learns more.
This advantage of faster learning persists even after 5 years, when they both keep learning English as a foreign language in China.

 

Surprised?

In a parallel universe, Lin and Wei directly immigrate to America. They don’t have time for classes so they are learning English in the non-instructional immersion-context of their daily lives. Guess who learns more in 1 year?

Wei, mom, learns faster in the first year, but Lin, daughter, catches up in 2 years and eventually surpasses her mom overall in 7 years; though it does not mean 12-year-old Lin can write a resume or publish a paper like her mom.

 

Surprised again?

In another alternate universe, Wei might start learning English in America at 22 and reach native-like proficiency. Such a universe exists, but is less common.

 

The fear of being too old to learn a new language

We cannot tell you how many times we have heard the complaint “I am just too old to learn a new language!” Perhaps you’ve even thought this yourself. What if we told you your age could actually be an advantage in language learning?

 

Though human’s general learning ability declines as people age, including language learning ability; the fear of simply being “too old” has its root in the “critical period hypothesis“, which assumes irreversible biological changes prevent you from being a successful language learner as you get older. In other words, it’s the “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” mentality. This, however, is merely a hypothesis.

We do know that age can be associated with many factors. For instance, in the example above, Wei’s well-developed Chinese interferes with English learning, or Wei’s mind is too crowded with family and work to make room for pure language learning, or Wei’s strong identity as Chinese prevent her from speaking a second language, or Wei’s concern with grammar surpasses her will to try to speak.

Not only do we have good reason to be more optimistic about language learning as adults, this kind of pessimism can also hurt our ability to learn. After all, how can you learn a language if you perceive yourself to be incapable of doing so?

 

 

Lin vs. Wei: Who is a better language learner?

Instead of a one-dimensional bar diagram (figure 1), language learning is a multi-dimensional radar chart (figure 2).


figure 1.

 

Figure 2.   Lin Language development                            Wei’s Language development

 

As we can see, Lin and Wei have different language learning advantages.

As an adult, Wei is better equipped with knowledge about language because of her well-developed first language, Chinese. She already knows basic language concepts such as “verb” “noun” and “sentence structure”, and can apply such knowledge into English learning, since languages do share a deep, common base. Lin, on the contrary, is still developing her first language and mapping out the panorama of language (figure 3).

 

Figure 3.        Wei                                                                                            Lin

 

Wei also has a faster learning rate. She learns more content than Lin in a class (25 min) or in immersion, non-instructional environment (up to a year) because of cognitive maturation and previous language knowledge. In short, adults are better at problem solving which helps them decode languages. This initial advantage can be lost in 3-5 years in immersion context, though. In foreign language context (studying a language in a classroom setting in a country where it is not the majority language), however, the advantage persists (figure 4).

 

Figure 4.

 

Wei has stronger motivation because of clear goals. Lin may only be motivated by sweets and praises from teachers; Wei may seek a career opportunity or a new possibility for life. Ultimately, motivation to learn a language determines a lot in successful language acquisition.

 

Wei’s cognitive maturation is also a powerful aid for language learning, especially when the language learning tasks involves complex thinking. For example, in instructional context, Wei usually comprehends and applies grammar rules faster than Lin. Dealing with language tasks that involve cognitive capacity, adults usually excel children.

 

Lin’s ultimate attainment (overall language performance based on fully-developed language proficiency) can reach native speaker level, while it is harder for Wei, especially in terms of pronunciation. However, pronunciation really comes after communication, and many people assume too little tolerance and patience from native speakers. Studies also suggest that children are better at learning language implicitly, just like the way they learn to ride a bicycle. But how we learn a language does not equate with how well we learn it.

 

There are, however, some simple tactics for language acquisition children naturally use adults can try to help in their language learning process.

 

What Adult Students Can Learn From Children

  • Communication before grammar

There is trade-off between accuracy and fluency – put communication first because that’s what language is for.

  • Verbal Repetition of words & sentences as many times as possible.

It helps commit words to memory and practice pronunciation.

  • Learn through topics that interest you

Why do you think toddlers have no problems remembering names of 20 different dinosaurs?

  • Connect language learning to the actual world

If you want to remember “grapefruit” in Chinese, eat it when learning to say it; learning household items in German? Label everything in your house!

  • Use your time wisely – small Link, high frequency

Give yourself plenty of time and learn over a long period in small amounts to ensure that the new information is retained long-term and is easy to access. Taking months and years to work on our language proficiency, with frequent revisions, repetitions, working on one thing for a longer while, and going back to old things has a positive effect on our long-term outcomes.

  • Stick with it!

Don’t give up, don’t take breaks, don’t postpone or delay, keep going, just like kids do!

 

References

Age effects in language learning: controversial, but crucial to understand,” by Robert Dekeyser

Why Any Adult Can Learn a Second Language Like Their Younger Self

Reexamining the Critical Period Hypothesis: A Case Study of Successful Adult SLA in a Naturalistic Environment

Lourdes Ortega, Understanding Second Language Acquisition, chapter 2

Second language acquisition – essential information

 

 

Non-native Teachers

,

As I’m writing this, we are wrapping up registrations for another term of classes, and I’m finding myself talking about our courses and teachers to many prospective students. I often get asked if the teacher in a selected class is a native speaker of the language they teach. It’s a simple yes/no question but I have so many problems with it!

The question usually comes from the underlying assumptions that native speakers…

A) are better teachers

B) know the language more extensively

and

C) students will learn to speak the language with their teachers’ native accents.

Because English is the most widely taught foreign/second language in the world, the issue of native-speaker preference is already being tackled in that universe and there is a lot we can learn from it, but let us take a moment here to discuss what we know from working with teachers of different languages and tackle the three assumptions mentioned above.

There is no research that supports the assumption that native speakers make better teachers; there are no studies or statistics showing that students learn more, better or faster from native vs. non-native speakers. Where learning is concerned, other characteristics of a teacher are a much better measure. You will find that a teacher’s personality traits like patience and creativity, as well as, positive attitude and personal investment in teaching are the main predictors of students’ overall success.

Good teachers are those who are trained to teach foreign languages, have a passion for it, are kind and respectful towards their students, and continue to grow professionally. Both native and non-native teachers have the opportunity to become exquisite teachers, and the mere fact that someone is a native speaker doesn’t bring them any closer to being a good language teacher.

On average, indeed, native speakers know more of the given language than non-native speakers, but only if we control for education levels. If we, however, compare a well-educated non-native speaker with a native speaker with less education, we will find that the non-native speaker will speak more intelligibly and will be able to use the language correctly in a wider range of situations, including professional and formal circumstances.

Something else worth noting is teaching a language requires what we could call “meta-knowledge” of the language, or some rudimentary linguistic awareness of the language. Let’s observe some examples of different language features that must be taught to students: the passive voice in English or German, the subjunctive in French and Spanish, the gender-number agreement in Russian and Polish. Native speakers of these languages use these features in their language every day but of course they never think about them. If asked, “why do you say it this way” they may have no idea. Alternatively, not every non-native teacher would do a good job teaching a class about it (see point A), but every one of them would know the concept of “passive voice, subjunctive, etc.”, why it has to have a place in the curriculum, why it needs to be used, and what is the difference between the passive and active voice – just to use this one example.

So what a teacher needs regarding language knowledge is both the functional ability, which is similar type of skill to riding a bike – you don’t know the mechanics of the bike or anatomy behind your muscle movements but you can ride a bike; and the analytical ability, i.e. having the awareness of each grammar point, sentence structure, fine differences between similar words and so on. On average, non-native teachers will have higher level of awareness of grammar and structures of the language than native teachers, but native teachers will have, on average, higher functional ability.

The trouble with accent is that although some (very few) people will actually pick up an accent from another speaker or their teacher, and to a minimal degree all of us can and do even in our native language (i.e. we try to accommodate the speaker by speaking similarly to them), most of us are not able to mimic perfectly the pronunciation or intonation of someone else, especially in a foreign language. If we were able to pick up accents just like that, I would now (after living almost 4 years in the United States!) have a perfect local accent. I don’t and I won’t, although I listen to and speak with Americans all the time. Typically, your accent in a new language is determined by your first language: most of us, saying things in a new language, sound like we are speaking our native tongue with new words and sentence order! Your accent will also be determined by other languages you learned or use. Finally, we might hear a little bit of your teacher in you, but probably no more than a tiny percentage.

This is all to say that having a native speaker as a teacher does not in itself give students any particular advantages.

Some teachers actually say being non-native is an advantage in a classroom!

But ultimately, rigorous training, actual and certified language proficiency, as well as personality and attitude should be the only selection criteria when hiring instructors in all language teaching institutions, for both native and non-native teachers.

The Perennial Problem of Class Size: Why a Smaller Language Class Is Not Better At All

Recently, when gathering competitive intel on the website of one of our competitors, I noticed that they cap their class size at 6 (six!), arguing that this way the class can remain true to the chosen approach of “personalized and conversational”. In the same vein, I have also heard from our students who happened to be in a class of more than 10 students, that their class was too big! And a prospective student pointed out that she likes her class to be between 6 and 8 students, reason being the amount of time she would get to speak in class. It appears then, students’ common preference is to be in small classes (and by that they mean less than 10), so let’s investigate if there are actual benefits of being in a class this small, and whether – specifically for a language class (for other class types it’s not!) – smaller is better all the way down to 1-on-1 classes.

The “conversational” aspect and Student Talking Time

It’s en vogue, and for a good reason, to be in a class that focuses on conversation. So what makes a class a conversational one? It’s the amount we talk, and specifically, the amount each student talks in class. Do we get to talk less when there are more students in class? Only if we assume that all the conversations are “teacher-to-student”, i.e. only one student at a time gets to talk and their talking partner is the teacher. If this is the type of the class you’re in, then it’s not a very good class. What we need to do to truly maximize the Student Talking Time is for students to converse in pairs, groups or with multiple partners within an activity. The role of the teacher in class is not to be a conversation partner for a student: his/her role is to facilitate such meaningful exchanges between students that they can go off on their own talking to each other.

The principle is similar to a party: you don’t expect to speak less at a party with a lot of people. On the contrary, the more people there are, the more likely you are to find yourself exchanging many different experiences and viewpoints with different people. You are also more likely to find people you like there, even if one or another conversation partner rubs you the wrong way, makes weird remarks, or is plain annoying. At a small party, you might end up speaking to just one or two people all night and, if the other two present are weirdos, not a good party, not a good class. Bottom line: want a truly conversational class? Find a group of at least 10 people with a teacher who is a facilitator, not a talker.

Personalized approach

In language classes as well as in schools and colleges, there is the hope that a student will receive a more personalized approach in a small class. Even in this aspect, the small class fails to deliver on expectations. Many observations and much research shows that, in reality, teachers tend to follow the same pace and curriculum regardless of the class size and composition; without much consideration for what their students’ strengths, weaknesses and preferences are. Many teachers simply don’t have specific tools to address the each student’s particular struggles, even if they have the time to do it in class. At the same time, state-of-the-art methodologies are so well researched and advanced that the vast majority of students (barring specific learning disabilities) will do very well in a class built around strong structure, a variety of activities and materials, and with a respectful and enthusiastic teacher.

Reminder: learning styles are a myth, which also takes off the edge of the “personalization” argument.

Team benefits

From our observations of many years, every class needs a critical mass of median students who constitute the healthy core setting the pace for the class. Among 4 or 6 students, it may feel that everyone is at a different proficiency level, almost like a dataset with only outliers. If we have 12 to 14 students, we are much more likely to have a group of students right on par for the course and, even if there are outliers (weaker and stronger students), the class continues to learn at a healthy pace while the teacher makes adjustments to accommodate the outliers. In this class, if someone misses a session or two, there are others to help them out; if an activity is particularly difficult, there are still 2 to 3 students who get it and can assist others. In other words, the class has a greater sum of total knowledge and skills to fall back on. The underlying principle here is that we learn a lot from our peers (more than from the teacher!), so we need peers and a number of them to that!

In this sense, a language class is like a team of synchronized swimmers, cheerleaders, or a marching band: you will find that each member relies a lot on the group to deliver their portion of the performance and they would really struggle having to perform their own part solo without the group, no matter how good they are. That’s why one-on-one language classes are not as effective as many people think. They are like running a marathon on your own. Deprived of the camaraderie (or the ”party effect”) of a bigger class, moral support of your peers, and having to interact with only one person who is way-out-of-your-league as far as language proficiency (the teacher), makes one-on-one classes a true challenge. Because language learning is a very long process, you’re in it for years and you need all the positive incentives you can get to stick to it. Being part of a group is one incentive, and indeed we observe, term after term at TFLI, that members of bigger groups continue to come to class, do homework and improve their language skills for a much longer time (measured in total hours of class taken) than students in small or individual classes.

There are, of course, exceptions: rare languages learned for specific purposes (job, moving to a new country), where the motivation is so high that the learner will improve with or without camaraderie; or students already quite proficient in the language, working to fix a specific deficiency (e.g. academic writing); or those who don’t enjoy parties and the conversation part is more a burden on them than something to enjoy or prioritize. Shy or introvert students, for example, improve their speaking or conversation skills slower than they improve in other areas. Even those, though, are more likely to find a buddy in a bigger class and they need the buddy to help them feel at home in a class.

At TFLI we would like to have classes of around 12 so that students can take advantage of all these benefits, but we are also strict at capping classes at 16 in accordance with ACTFL guidelines. We do want the teacher to get enough opportunities to listen to students, observe their progress, assess their performance, provide feedback, know their interests and personality, and act on this knowledge.

Bottom line: there is such thing as a too small language class, but a class bigger than 16 is inefficient and overcrowded.

Why is it hard to understand people with accents?

You ain’t from around here, are you?

 

The title of this piece is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. After all, we all have accents, right? The topic, however, is something we’ve all experienced; one minute, you’re meeting a new colleague or calling tech support and the next, you find yourself in an awkward circle of apologetic smiles and “Um, I’m sorry. What did you say?” For the Americans in the room, perhaps you even try to gloss it over with something not entirely true and overly-polite like, “I’m sorry, my hearing is terrible.”

The in-group bias called own-accent bias, or our implicit preference to interact with people who sound like us, is probably the main reason many non-native language users would like to reduce foreign traits in their speech. Our perception often makes us consider those with non-local accents as “low language proficiency,” even if accent is the only thing that makes their speech different from our own, and it gets worse: based on accented speech, we make assumptions about the speaker’s education levels, competence, intelligence and trustworthiness! The speaker doesn’t even have to be a foreigner to suffer from accent bias; think of “My cousin Vinny” and everything that went wrong in the movie because of New York accent! The Scotts in the U.K. know something about it, too, and the listener doesn’t even have to be human. No wonder people don’t like having accents!

 

Some researchers asked, though, if it really is only a bias; an implicit prejudice that, let us underscore, nobody is immune to, not even babies. It turns out that our brain does indeed have a harder time processing accented speech and remembers less of the message that was conveyed by someone who sounds differently from us. Part of the reason is that listeners focus less on what is actually being said: our brain makes predictions about the message based on the accent instead of actually listening, so we don’t really hear the message, let alone process and comprehend it. It’s like we assume that a speaker with an accent is less proficient and we don’t truly expect them to be clear on what they are going to say, so we start guessing, or assuming what the message might be as if we knew better, instead of listening.

Now, to be clear: many non-native language users do have actual pronunciation problems (such as saying the wrong sound, e.g. “stomach” with the final “ch” as in “chair”), grammar, or vocabulary shortcomings which obviously and significantly hinder communication. This problem is not the native listeners being biased or their brains having fixed expectations of what they would hear. This is the foreign learner that needs more instruction and practice with a trained instructor. This is not the case we are discussing here. We are talking about millions of highly proficient language users who enjoy/suffer from* (underline all that apply) their own accented speech and have otherwise a very strong command of grammar, lexis and pronunciation in their second (or third or fifth) language.

This leads us to an obvious problem. The entire community suffers in the long run if its members can’t use their full potential – don’t get the jobs they are well-suited for or are not accepted to schools that would give them better opportunities, or are not heard in meetings, all because they don’t “sound right.” The good news is, being aware of what is going on in our brain when facing a new accent is actually already a way of alleviating the negative impact on communication that accents have. It’s also good to know that our brain is smart and learns to deal with different accents very quickly. Then there is social justice: most of us don’t want to discriminate, and biases lead to discrimination, so we are inclined to make conscious efforts to avoid accent bias once we know what it is.

For non-native speakers, there is yet another side of the reality: even if we could train and fix our accents to sound like natives, and be like Hugh Laurie, which target accent would we choose? For those trying to master English, there are so many World Englishes to choose from. Part of me would love to sound Tennessean but… I will again sound foreign if I move to my dream destination – New Zealand! If you are learning French, are you aiming for Québécoise or Parisian? Castilian Spanish or any of the variants of Latin American Spanish pronunciation we can think of?

As it is in the best interest of all of us to make our communication more effective, and we know now that there is not only a bias working against us, but also an actual difficulty in processing of non-native speakers, and reducing accents is hard, then what can we do to help all of us understand each other better?

For native speakers:

  • Take a couple of minutes to accustom yourself to a new conversation partner and their accent. Small talk is a great strategy to tune in to each other.
  • Listen carefully and consciously focus on the message, not the accent
  • Check yourself for assumptions and get rid of them
  • Try this
  • Keep learning the language and its varieties for the sake of interesting, rich and effective communication

For non-native speakers or people with non-standard accents:

  • Be confident of your skills even if your speech is heavily accented
  • Speak loudly and clearly
  • If not on the phone, use natural body language and mimicry to help your interlocutors follow you. A lot of communication and sense of connection between people happens through non-verbal means so let’s take advantage of it. Even if our accents don’t match, our gestures and facial expressions might, which would alleviate the impression of foreignness.
  • Keep learning the language for the sake of interesting, rich, and effective communication
Feature Photo by Janis Oppliger on Unsplash