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Adults vs. Kids learning

 Language Learning Forum : Philological Room Post Reply
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Serpent
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 Message 65 of 77
20 May 2013 at 2:03pm | IP Logged 
Agreed about the time. This was my main reason to start learning almost all languages I care about before 20. Well, time in both senses - I started Portuguese when I was 17, Spanish and Italian shortly after that, now I have a job where I use them (and so I don't see the time I spend working as wasted). Portuguese alone would be less valuable for my job so that's one of a million reasons I'm glad I didn't wait before I "finished" it.

Edited by Serpent on 20 May 2013 at 2:05pm

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patrickwilken
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 Message 66 of 77
20 May 2013 at 2:36pm | IP Logged 
But doesn't this all then come done to the somewhat trivial point: The sooner you start something the better you'll be at it?

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Lone_Wolf
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 Message 67 of 77
20 May 2013 at 2:55pm | IP Logged 
patrickwilken wrote:
But doesn't this all then come done to the somewhat trivial point: The sooner you start something the better you'll be at it?


As a matter of fact, I think it does. I'm sorry I wasn't able to grasp this point sooner. I'm happy that my 15 year old and my 12 year old sons are learning Japanese with Arabic and Spanish being additional languages of interest to my 12 year old son. I haven't started my 7 year old son on a foreign language yet, but thanks to the information I was able to get from this thread I will now either start teaching him Arabic or situate him with his older brothers for Japanese.

Well, I guess I should be happy that I started learning Arabic off and on when I was in my early twenties. My Fusha vocabulary still outnumbers the vocabulary I have for Darija in spite of being to Morocco twice.
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emk
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 Message 68 of 77
20 May 2013 at 3:41pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:
Why is childhood usually the best time for the acquisition of other languages? There may be a neurological factor insofar as phonology is concerned. But the fundamental reason is that the most favourable conditions are present at that time. What are those favourable conditions? In my opinion, these include:
1. Schooling in the language, i.e. acquisition of knowledge through the language
2. Socialization in the language, i.e. intimate interaction with native peers
3. Massive exposure to media and culture in the language.

I definitely agree that children in school have major advantages, largely due to these factors. And your point (2) is really important. From what I've heard, there's often a big difference between anglophones who went to a French immersion school with other anglophones, and kids who simply grew up in ordinary Montreal schools.

Lone_Wolf wrote:
So, on that note I have to throw myself in the same camp as s_allard. Even though I still don't think there is a difference between a 38 year old brain and a 10 year old brain in language learning capacity, I absolutely CANNOT underestimate the importance of TIME and how much of that is needed if one wishes to truly master a foreign language or attain native level fluency in it; and a child will always have that advantage over an adult language learner.

I agree that kids have huge advantages when it comes to time.

But just in case there are any beginning language learners following this thread, I want to point out that not everybody needs to reach the same level as a well-read native. Personally, nobody would ever mistake me for a native speaker. But that doesn't stop me from:

1. Speaking French with my wife and her family.
2. Reading tons of books in French.
3. Following TV series in French.
4. Dealing with customer service and tech support in French.
5. Listening to science podcasts, cultural documentaries and news shows.
6. Having long conversations with strangers (assuming they're bored enough to want to chat with a random foreigner).
7. Signing up for an online statistics course.

Sometimes, some of these things are an uphill struggle! But the key point is that I don't need native-level skills to live much of my life in French. And so when we talk about the incredible amount of time and effort needed to sound like a well-read native speaker, I think it's important to remember that most of that time is spent perfecting advanced skills, and not learning the basics. For people moving between European languages, it's often possible to reach a fun, conversational level within a year, assuming perhaps an hour of study per day.

The big gap isn't between "nothing" and "can have a great time as a tourist" or between "nothing" and "can express an intelligent opinion about politics". The real effort is between those levels and "sounds like a native graduate of one of the grandes ├ęcoles." Like most students at my level or above, I sometimes complain about the latter gap. But I don't want that to ever take away from the sheer awesomeness of reaching a B1-ish level and having an entire conversation in another language for the first time.

Edited by emk on 20 May 2013 at 3:49pm

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Lykeio
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United Kingdom
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 Message 69 of 77
20 May 2013 at 4:46pm | IP Logged 
I know that concepts like a "critical period" or Chomsky's magic little mental box have
been really entrenched since the 80's and 90's but honestly, linguists specialising in
this area are beginning to dissent, from what (little) I've read. I also have no idea
what cognitive scientists themselves think of this stuff.

There are studies which prove that adults can indeed do everything a child doe, Yes
including internalising prosody and phonotactics, which I'll list below. Though
obviously this is rare and generally children develop better accents, probably due to
less inference from the native system amongst other things.

Generally speaking it seems that children have quite a few advantages when it comes to
developing accent etc, but adults can learn languages really, really, fast and have
considerable advantages in things like literacy. So there are various cognitive
advantages that help adults too. I know Shekhtman (sp?) mentions that this is due to
adults having already mastered one language.

This final point, said mastery, is one of the reasons I personally believe that
language learning gets easier each time. a) Most people have a shite grasp of their own
language, English students included, whereas learning a second language forces one to
confront grammar, syntax, register and so on and b) you come across different language
"frameworks" from which you can infer stuff.

Basically, at best we can talk about tendencies, we certainly can't be as firm and
steadfast in our opinions as some posters have been.

Here are some of the studies I alluded to by the way:

Birdsong, D (1999) Second Language Acquisition and the Critical Period Hypothesis. NJ,
USA.

Leaver, B (2003) Achieving native like second language proficiency: A Catalogue of
Critical Factors. CA, USA.


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s_allard
Triglot
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 Message 70 of 77
20 May 2013 at 5:38pm | IP Logged 
I want to disagree with this idea that the fundamental difference between learning as a child and learning as an adult is a) starting earlier is better than starting later and b) children have more 'free' time than adults.

Similarly, I don't fully agree with the idea that biological age is the dominant factor in second language acquisition.

What I have stressed in all my posts is that childhood is the moment when the optimal conditions are usually met for the acquisition of other languages. Schooling in the language and socialization with native peers are, in my mind, the two critical factors in second language acquisition.

The problem with much of the discussions about age and language learning, even in the scientific community, is that all sorts of factors and confounds are mixed up.

Everybody probably agrees that the most important factor in predicting comprehension and speaking performance is active and meaningful exposure to the language. The problem is that such a broad statement can apply to many different situations.Living in the country, working in the language and marrying a native are guaranteed to make you a more proficient speaker. No surprise there.

One can also add things like attitude and motivation, IQ, a talent for mimicry, formal instruction, the right tools, tutoring, personality, etc.

Adults can learn very well. That isn't the question. And as @emk has pointed out, native-like proficiency is not necessary.

I think the fundamental observation is that childhood is the best time because of the optimal learning conditions.
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s_allard
Triglot
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 Message 71 of 77
20 May 2013 at 7:09pm | IP Logged 
To add to this debate, I think it may be worthwhile to have a look at the experience of French immersion in the Canadian school system. French immersion refers to the use of French as the sole or primary medium of instruction in elementary and high schools where the children are not French-speaking.

What started as an experiment in the late 1960's has become a great success story today with parents lining up overnight or having to use a lottery system to register their kids in the program.

I won't go into the complexities or failings of the system, but I should point out that the whole idea of French immersion is based on two fundamental ideas:
1. Second languages are best learned during childhood.
2. Schooling where the target language is the medium of instruction is conducive to acquisition of the language.

It must be made clear that this kind of immersion does not produce perfectly bilingual speakers and never pretended to do so. The reasons are pretty simple: the classes are made up of all non-French-speakers; French is rarely spoken outside the school; many of the teachers are not native speakers of French.

That said, there are two observations that explain the enthusiasm of the parents:
1. Children of immersion are much more proficient in French at all levels than children in the regular (rather useless) classes.
2. The children acquire a foundation in French that will serve them later in life if they need to improve their knowledge of French.

This second point is particularly important because we are seeing today the generations of adults who went through French immersion years ago. Despite all their limitations in terms of high proficiency, their knowledge of French is far superior to that of their non-immersion peers.
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Lone_Wolf
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 Message 72 of 77
20 May 2013 at 8:02pm | IP Logged 
s_allard wrote:


What I have stressed in all my posts is that childhood is the moment when the optimal conditions are usually met for the acquisition of other languages. Schooling in the language and socialization with native peers are, in my mind, the two critical factors in second language acquisition.


@s_allard, I have tried my best to get you to understand that those two critical factors, essential as they are, are not exclusively available to children. They are equally applicable to adult language learners and when these two factors are made available to adults, they achieve the same (if not greater) results as children placed under those same conditions.

I have taken the liberty of going back and reading your entire participation in this thread from your first post to your last post above and what I have noticed is that you are not raising any points at all about a child's brain being better suited than an adult's brain when it comes to foreign language acquisition. Instead (whether you realize or not) you are speaking about Immersion Situations which is a point I and some others here have been arguing all along and I have made my stance clear that any adult who is mentally healthy WILL achieve the SAME (if not better) results under a total immersion experience as any child placed in a total immersion experience. You are still arguing a very flawed opinion (a child's brain acquires foreign languages better than an adult's brain) with absolutely no research or empirical study to substantiate that flawed opinion.

I personally have two acquaintances who each studied Arabic in Yemen. I don't know if they went to the same institute or if they remained for the same length of time, but the one guy who goes by the name of Hamza (he's a religious Muslim whose birth name I do not know) is nothing short of amazing in BOTH Modern Standard Arabic AND the dialect spoken in Sanaa'a. I know that HE was there for less than a year (between 6 and 8 months).

But the institute he was schooled at was a full scale immersion program where he learned The Arabic of The Quran and Yemeni Colloquial. Hamza had very little to no Arabic skills before going to Yemen and he came back to the U.S. in very impressive fashion. The other guy, Abdullah, was already quite good in Arabic before he went there. But still, I have seen with my own eyes what adults in their 20's and 30's can accomplish in an immersion experience.

Your last post above is also speaking about what accomplishments can be made through language immersion:

s_allard wrote:
I won't go into the complexities or failings of the system, but I should point out that the whole idea of French immersion is based on two fundamental ideas:
1. Second languages are best learned during childhood.
2. Schooling where the target language is the medium of instruction is conducive to acquisition of the language.


Number one I have spoken on concerning the time it takes to reach mastery of a foreign language (if indeed that is the intended goal of the language student) and how it is better to start as young as possible for that reason. And your second point is AGAIN addressing immersion which adults have and do achieve the same remarkable results in foreign language acquisition under those optimal conditions as do children under the same conditions. In fact, your other quote below says it best:

s_allard wrote:
That said, there are two observations that explain the enthusiasm of the parents:
1. Children of immersion are much more proficient in French at all levels than children in the regular (rather useless) classes.


BINGO!!! ANYONE (adults or children) will ALWAYS fair way better in an immersion program than all those others (again, adults or children) who are learning languages in a regular (rather useless) class :-)

I'll put it to you this way:

s_allard wrote:
It must be made clear that this kind of immersion does not produce perfectly bilingual speakers and never pretended to do so. The reasons are pretty simple: the classes are made up of all non-French-speakers; French is rarely spoken outside the school


Bingo Again!! :-)

Keep a 5 or 6 year old child in that school under those same conditions for 6 months while a 40 year old goes off to Paris to learn French in a TOTAL IMMERSION PROGRAM and I promise you that the 40 year old adult will go to Canada at the end of those 6 months and put that 6 year old child to shame when it comes to SPEAKING, COMPREHENDING and actually KNOWING French!!

Of course I'm expecting you to come back with a post of disagreement. It is not a rhetorical question. I would really like to know if you can provide us here the research study that was performed to substantiate your opinion that a 6 year old brain is more suited by default to absorb second languages than a 30, 40 or 50 year old brain.

I am waiting for that study in all sincerity.


Edited by Lone_Wolf on 20 May 2013 at 10:19pm



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