It’s estimated that 60-75% of people worldwide speak more than one language. With multilingualism being so common, why is it that so many people still believe they can’t learn a new language well into adulthood?
The age at which you acquire a language does influence how you acquire that language, but it’s only one factor of many. Children and adults have different skills and face different challenges when learning a new language. Comparing how children and adults acquire language can lead to insights into how to better teach both groups a second language.
Most children are more open to new experiences and take more risks than adults. This is a huge asset in language acquisition. No one is born a native speaker; infants generally need at least a year to produce their first word. Children are constantly experimenting—with language, the physical world, and social interactions. Children crave understanding through experience.
This experiential impulse means that kids are well accustomed to what adults would deem “failure”. To a child, these “failures” give them valuable information about the world around them.
When a child uses a new word in an incorrect context, people react and the child eliminates that context as correct and keeps trying different contexts until they understand what works. Making mistakes isn’t a failure but a natural and vital part of the learning process.
For adults learning a new language, it’s probably been a while since they made these kinds of mistakes in their native language. It may feel unfamiliar and embarrassing to adult learners to make “basic” mistakes in their new language.
A shift in perspective can overcome this roadblock. Help your adult students see their mistakes as insights into their learning process and opportunities for growth.
The flipside of the child’s naivete is the adult’s capacity for critical thinking and reflection. Adults are able to grasp complex linguistic features and understand why a language operates the way it does.
Unlike an infant, an adult doesn’t require an entire year of listening to produce their first word in a new language. Similarly, it doesn’t take an adult ten years of full-time study to produce a coherent essay with correct spelling, punctuation, and complex grammar in a language.
Because of their critical thinking skills, adults are able to recognize errors and self-correct. As long as the adult learners aren’t crippled by a fear of making errors, the mistakes they make are very likely to be noticed, investigated, understood, and corrected by the learners themselves.
Many times children are unaware they have even made a mistake, which makes it more difficult for them to self-correct. Children develop their critical thinking skills over time as their brains develop.
The process can’t be rushed and the learning pace is set by the child’s development. An adult learner can speed up their language learning by thinking critically about the language and themselves.
The Knowledge Gap
Another factor that aids adults in second language acquisition is knowledge: prior knowledge, knowing how to seek new knowledge, and knowledge of oneself.
Adults have a greater understanding and experience of the world that they apply when faced with contextual gaps or misunderstandings in the new language. This can help them make connections and draw conclusions that speed up the language-learning process. Children acquire this knowledge through experience and, like critical thinking, the process can’t be rushed.
Teachers should encourage students at any age to apply prior knowledge and make connections to what they already know.
Adults are also more efficient when it comes to seeking new knowledge. From childhood to adulthood, they have learned how to find new information. They know where to look for it, have the skills to understand it, can discern its value and relevance, and can apply it to their specific needs.
Imagine all the ways you seek information when learning a new language as an adult. You might use a dictionary, search the internet, ask your instructor, or reach out to a friend.
These techniques that adults take for granted require many varied skills and knowledge kids don’t yet have, such as literacy, manual dexterity, meta-language, social skills, and an awareness of their lack of knowledge.
Teachers should encourage knowledge seeking for all students but be mindful of the students’ abilities. Empowering learners to independently seek knowledge builds autonomy and fosters self-directed learning at all ages.
Knowledge in Oneself
Adult learners have typically already been to school and studied many topics, including one or more languages. Because of that prior experience, they have a better understanding of the learning process in general and which methods work best for them in particular.
On the flipside, children don’t have the benefit of years of education behind them. However, this is not necessarily a detriment since it makes them more open to new methods and techniques.
It’s important for teachers of young learners to use a wide variety of different methods and encourage students to reflect on how the different methods work for them.
The L1 is the most important piece of prior knowledge and experience language learners have. The L1 is the first language, the mother tongue. No matter what the L1 is, it has a strong influence on subsequent language learning. Previously this was called “L1 interference“, but now linguists use the more neutral term “language transfer“.
Most adults have already acquired an L1. Any subsequent language they learn will be viewed through the lens of the L1. This is the cause of many classic difficulties learners experience with prepositions, word order, and gender. Besides of the syntax and grammar of the L1, there are likely certain sounds in the L1 that may not exist in the L2, and vice versa. These take a lot of time and effort to hear, form, and pronounce correctly.
Young learners who have not yet solidified their L1 are better able to approach the language through itself–that is, without the lens of the L1. The neuroplasticity they have at the developmental stage allows them to acquire the second language alongside their L1 with less or no interference depending on the child’s age. Children are highly capable of acquiring two languages simultaneously with native fluency as long as they interact regularly with speakers of those languages.
That being said, the L1 can have positive effects on later language learning. Positive language transfer includes cognates, familiarity with similar syntax and grammar across languages, writing systems and scripts, and the alphabet, among others. Additionally, having an L1 and having studied it formally, as most adults have during their schooling, increases linguistic awareness and understanding of meta-language.
Learning Through Content
Kids learning about the world learn their L1 incidentally through interacting with people and experiencing the world. This makes language acquisition highly engaging. Children learn a language to facilitate social interactions to learn about the world. They use English because they need to achieve a larger goal.
There’s no reason teaching adults can’t be approached in the same way. Teachers in an adult ESL classroom should seek to teach engaging content through the language to better retain students’ interest and vary classes.
A topic that engages the student paired with a teaching style that facilitates the use of the target language in exploring that topic is a winning combination for language acquisition.
Adults and kids have different abilities and different challenges when learning a new language. Understanding how each group acquires language offers valuable insight into teaching and learning practices for people of all ages.
As teachers, we should foster openness, critical thinking, the application of knowledge and contextualized learning in our classrooms to better serve our students, no matter what age they are.
Deng, F., & Zou, Q. (2016). A Study on Whether the Adults’ Second Language Acquisition Is Easy or Not—From the Perspective of Children’s Native Language Acquisition. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 6(4), 776-780. doi:10.17507/tpls.0604.15.
For more on teaching kids, see my other articles at The English Blog:
5 C’s for Teaching Older Children in the Classroom
The After-School Special: Beating Afternoon Exhaustion
Fun from a Distance: Online Games for ESL
When the End of the Year Doesn’t Feel Like It: Saying Goodbye During COVID-19