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Adults vs. Kids learning

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beano
Diglot
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 Message 25 of 77
16 May 2013 at 12:21pm | IP Logged 
I know a woman who moved from a former Soviet Union state to Germany when she was in her 20s. She was able to do this as she had German family heritage, but she spoke only Russian on arrival. Not a word of German, or English.

She found menial work in a fruit factory and told me that after a year she could speak. I don't think that adults are often thrown into this sink-or-swim fully immersive environment. But necessity is the mother of invention.
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patrickwilken
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Germany
radiant-flux.net
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 Message 26 of 77
16 May 2013 at 12:51pm | IP Logged 
beano wrote:
I know a woman who moved from a former Soviet Union state to Germany when she was in her 20s. She was able to do this as she had German family heritage, but she spoke only Russian on arrival. Not a word of German, or English.

She found menial work in a fruit factory and told me that after a year she could speak. I don't think that adults are often thrown into this sink-or-swim fully immersive environment. But necessity is the mother of invention.


Yeah, absolutely. It would be easy to stay that English speakers have it particularly hard, but I think actually anyone who moves to a country with a reasonable pre-existing community in their L1, which they interact with, will have some trouble learning. I buy beer from a corner store nearby and was chatting at the cash register and the guy was impressed with my German, saying his father after 20 years in Germany couldn't speak as well. I have heard also that some Turkish woman at least are discouraged from learning German, as a way of control by their husbands, though I have no idea whether this is true or some sort of racist slander. Certainly if you are staying at home, or working with others of your L1, using media in your L1, it can be very hard to learn German quickly.
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emk
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 Message 27 of 77
16 May 2013 at 2:02pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
I have no doubt that adults, with the right kind of massive exposure, lots of time and some good correction can achieve native-like proficiency. On the other hand, a 10 year old adopted into a foreign language will sound like a native in a year.

The reality of childhood language acquisition isn't quite as rosy as many people think:

1. It's extraordinary rare for child to attain actual, native-like skills in a year. Most commonly, children will develop solid conversational language, but will lag behind their native peers in school performance for 3 to 7 years. Lots of supposedly "fluent" kids are really B1+ with a good accent and intonation. And kids will only reach this conversational level in "sink or swim" situations, where they need the language to communicate with their peers.

2. Even monolingual native children may have surprisingly small vocabularies: I have book marked recommandé pour les classes de troisième (enseignement général), et de séconde, première et terminale (enseignment professionnel), which means it's intended for native teenagers 14 to 18 years of age, depending on academic track. And the publisher feels the need to footnote 1 or 2 words per page, including relatively common words like escamoter. If you were to give me 14 to 17 years of full-time immersion, including school, I guarantee that my vocabulary would be better than that.

3. Children can and do fail to learn languages at any age. For examples, check out the Heritage Language tag here at HTLAL, which is full of stories of people who are awful at one of their family's home languages.

4. French has been a constant presence in our home since our children were born, and our children understand complex directions in French (and they adore French-language children's TV and bedtime stories). But I actually speak French better than they do, at least right now. This is simply because I force myself to do so, and because I have more media exposure. At this point, my children's best chance to pass me in French would be a summer or two in France—but given the same opportunity, I'd make enormous progress, too.

5. According to some studies I've seen, something like 12% of immersed 6-year-olds will never develop a completely native accent, and the number rises steady until it hits about 95% during puberty. But if you leave aside light accents, I know plenty of adult learners who speak nearly flawless conversational English, and who almost never make preposition errors. Why? They've lived and worked with native speakers for 5 to 10 years without being able to fall back to their native language. And frankly, I can find you native speakers from Texas or California who have stronger accents than many of these adult learners.

I've made this point before and I'll make it again: You can't compare fully-immersed children to adults who study part time. Either (a) compare fully-immersed children to adults who suffer from similar degrees of desperation, or (b) compare child heritage learners to part-time adults.

patrickwilken wrote:
It wasn't that I didn't want to learn. I was actually quite stressed about my skill level, what I didn't understand was how to do it. I actually think living in your L2 country, up until at least you are intermediate isn't as helpful as people think.

I think this depends entirely on whether you succeed in creating an L1 bubble. People who live with monolingual native speakers make enormously fast progress even well outside of the critical period. This is sort of obvious: If you can't actually talk to anybody, you'll have incredible incentives to reach an A2 survival level in record time. And under those conditions, it's easy to make it from A2 to B2 in a few months, at least if you're moving between European languages. Or as Kató Lomb put it, "a linguistic microclimate is more important than a linguistic macroclimate."

A long time ago, I saw some neurological research suggesting that the human brain actually has mechanisms to suppress already-known languages in immersion situations. Sadly, I didn't save a link. But our own Solfrid Christin has some fascinating stories about how her near-native Spanish became almost completely inaccessible when she was immersed in other Romance languages.

However, despite this, I agree that's it's a good idea to reach a high A2 or better before travelling to the country. If nothing else, this vastly reduces the temptation to create an L1 bubble and it makes the whole experience considerably less agonizing. I had to reach very solid A2 before my wife and I could bear to speak French to each other, and even then, it was hard for several months.
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s_allard
Triglot
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Canada
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 Message 28 of 77
16 May 2013 at 3:06pm | IP Logged 
emk wrote:
s_allard wrote:
I have no doubt that adults, with the right kind of massive exposure, lots of time and some good correction can achieve native-like proficiency. On the other hand, a 10 year old adopted into a foreign language will sound like a native in a year.

The reality of childhood language acquisition isn't quite as rosy as many people think:

1. It's extraordinary rare for child to attain actual, native-like skills in a year. Most commonly, children will develop solid conversational language, but will lag behind their native peers in school performance for 3 to 7 years. Lots of supposedly "fluent" kids are really B1+ with a good accent and intonation. And kids will only reach this conversational level in "sink or swim" situations, where they need the language to communicate with their peers.

2. Even monolingual native children may have surprisingly small vocabularies: I have book marked recommandé pour les classes de troisième (enseignement général), et de séconde, première et terminale (enseignment professionnel), which means it's intended for native teenagers 14 to 18 years of age, depending on academic track. And the publisher feels the need to footnote 1 or 2 words per page, including relatively common words like escamoter. If you were to give me 14 to 17 years of full-time immersion, including school, I guarantee that my vocabulary would be better than that.

Please note that in my statement, I wrote "sound like a native in a year." I deliberately chose those words to emphasize the fact that children typically exhibit better fluency and phonological skills than adults. I did not say that a 10-year old child will attain the overall proficiency of a comparable native child in one year.

That said, let's come back to the main issue. The main characteristic, and possible advantage, of adult learners is explicit learning. An university-educated adult is a learning machine that can undertake the learning of a language in a systematic manner with good results.

Kids learn implicitly through interaction with peers, family and through instruction "in" the L2 language. In other words, children acquire the language organically and not artificially, as most adults do.

What this all means is that although adults language learners may have larger vocabularies and know more about grammar than kids, children will have a distinct advantage in terms of phonology, fluency and the ability to interact with native speakers.

I'll just repeat what many observers have said years ago. Nearly all truly multilingual individuals have acquired all or some of their languages at an early age. With reference specifically to French, I have never met an adult learner - let' say starting over the age of 20 - who could pass for native for more than 10 minutes. On the other hand, all non-natives who spoke perfect French learned the language basically by attending school in French at a young age.

As a matter of fact, just this morning I heard an interview with a spokesman of one of our local political parties. He spoke very good French but with a strong Spanish accent despite having lived for over 31 years in Montreal after arriving from Chile as an adult.

This is not to say that adults cannot learn languages. Hell no. That's not the point. I'm just saying that, for whatever reasons, children have a distinct advantage over adults. All parents know this.
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patrickwilken
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 Message 29 of 77
16 May 2013 at 3:33pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:

I'll just repeat what many observers have said years ago. Nearly all truly multilingual individuals have acquired all or some of their languages at an early age. With reference specifically to French, I have never met an adult learner - let' say starting over the age of 20 - who could pass for native for more than 10 minutes. On the other hand, all non-natives who spoke perfect French learned the language basically by attending school in French at a young age.


No offense, but aren't the goal posts shifting a bit here? Normally, when I have heard of the linguistic advantages of children, the cut off age is 6, not 20. I don't for a minute believe an 18 year old brain has a particular advantage learning a language over a 38 year old brain.

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beano
Diglot
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 Message 30 of 77
16 May 2013 at 3:39pm | IP Logged 
Does it really matter if an adult speaks with an accent? I judge a person's language abilities on what they say, not how they say it.
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s_allard
Triglot
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Canada
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Speaks: French*, English, Spanish
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 Message 31 of 77
16 May 2013 at 3:58pm | IP Logged 
patrickwilken wrote:
s_allard wrote:

I'll just repeat what many observers have said years ago. Nearly all truly multilingual individuals have acquired all or some of their languages at an early age. With reference specifically to French, I have never met an adult learner - let' say starting over the age of 20 - who could pass for native for more than 10 minutes. On the other hand, all non-natives who spoke perfect French learned the language basically by attending school in French at a young age.


No offense, but aren't the goal posts shifting a bit here? Normally, when I have heard of the linguistic advantages of children, the cut off age is 6, not 20. I don't for a minute believe an 18 year old brain has a particular advantage learning a language over a 38 year old brain.

The cut-off age is certainly not 6. The Critical Period Hypothesis, as this whole debate is called, says there exists an period between ages approximately 0 and 15 for the optimal learning of second languages. I would emphasize the word approximately. In my example, I chose 20 simply to be a bit far from 15 but not too far. But it could just as well have been 18, 28 or 38.

This raises another issue. We know that cognitive decline in adults starts around age 50. Should we not assume that after that age it becomes more difficult to learn a second language?
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emk
Diglot
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 Message 32 of 77
16 May 2013 at 4:25pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
I'm just saying that, for whatever reasons, children have a distinct advantage over adults. All parents know this.

As a parent in a bilingual household, I'd actually disagree. When my kids were born, my entire knowledge of French consisted of Assimil's New French With Ease and less than 1,000 pages of reading. My wife has consistently spoken French to our children since the day they were born. I've listened to her speak to the kids for over four years, and I started speaking French with her about 14 months ago. In addition, I flipped through a few grammar books, worked briefly with an excellent tutor, did lang-9 for a month, and joined the Super Challenge.

The result? I speak better French than my kids.


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