Why You Shouldn’t Learn a Language the Way Children Do

Now entering the fourth week of my year without English, I’ve seen a lot of different advice for learning languages. Some people believe in huge amounts of listening and reading. Others say take classes or dive into conversations immediately.

I won’t comment on those strategies (yet), but I will point out one common suggestion: you should learn a second language the way you learned your first language as a child.

On the surface this seems plausible. After all, you learned to speak without needing to rehearse grammatical rules or drill vocabulary flashcards. You can also speak without an accent—an extremely difficult goal for most adult language learners.

It would seem like modelling the language learning habits of children isn’t a bad idea. After all, if they can learn a language nearly perfectly, why shouldn’t adults simply copy their approach?

The answer lies with how the brain changes as we get older and why learning languages as an adult is very different than as a child.

Accent and Arrival Date

Living in Canada, I’ve had the opportunity to make friends from all over the world. I would guess that about half of my close friends have immigrated to Canada at some point in their lives.

Aside from those who have immigrated rather recently, most of my friends can speak English fluently. However, I can usually tell at what age they moved to Canada by one feature alone: their accent.

My friends who immigrated before the age of 12-14 can usually speak English without any recognizable accent. They speak English as well as I do and I wouldn’t be able to guess whether they spent their entire life in Canada, without asking first.

Those who came older than 14 usually have an accent, even if it doesn’t impede their speech noticeably. In some cases, a slightly older sibling may speak with an accent while a younger sibling doesn’t—the timing is that precise.

It turns out there is research to support why my friends who immigrated younger learned English sans accent, while my friends who came even a short time later did not. To understand the difference, you have to look at how the brain develops.

Learning Critical Periods

As you go from infant to adult, different regions of your brain go through critical periods. These are periods where the wiring of the brain is being still being laid down and when there is greater flexibility.

A clear case of this is with vision. Some unfortunate children are born with cataracts which blocks light onto their retinas. Nothing else is wrong with their visual system. If the cataracts are removed early, the child will likely grow up to experience normal vision.

If, however, the cataracts are removed too late (after about the age of 3-4) normal vision does not develop. There is nothing wrong with the child’s eyes or optic nerve, but the brain can’t process the visual stimulus correctly. (Learning and Memory, 2007)

Language learning also has a critical period. Although, unlike vision, it is possible to learn a language as an adult if you missed the opportunity as a child.

The critical period seems to be until around puberty. During this critical period, the brain can flexibly adapt to different phonemes and syntactical structures in a new language, learning them as you learned your first language.

Yes, You Can Learn a Language as an Adult

Some people take this information about critical periods as a justification for why they can’t learn a language as an adult. While the critical period does exist, in many ways it is easier to learn a language as an adult (as long as your goal isn’t perfect, accentless speech).

Instead, I believe the correct interpretation isn’t that language learning as an adult is impossible, or even more difficult, but that it is different. The methods you used to learn your first language may not work on your second, because your brain is different.

In principle, learning a second language as an adult should be a far easier task than learning a first language as a child. You’re smarter than you were as a child. You have experience, motivation and discipline. You also have your first language which gives you a reference point to learn from.

One of the simplest advantages you have as an adult learner is the ability to translate. I was able to learn Spanish much faster because I had already learned English and French. I could make direct translations between the three and use that to understand and figure out how Spanish works. A child learning Spanish as his first language has to abstract meaning out of noise—a considerably harder task.

Learning as an adult also has the benefit of motivation. I did twice weekly French classes starting around age 10 (already close to the end of the critical period) for about four years in Canada. But, I had no meaningful use for French so I found it boring and forgot almost everything. When I restarted my French years later, I had to relearn basics like, “How are you?”

The only place I’d give children the edge seems to be accent. That strict 12-14 cutoff point of my friends who have accents holds fairly consistently. I don’t think it’s impossible to speak without any accent, but that getting to perfection is vastly harder for adults.

Why I Won’t Force My Future Children to Learn French or Mandarin

Some overbearing parents, observing this cutoff point in language learning, want to make their children bilingual or trilingual, in languages they themselves don’t speak.

If I marry into, or end up living in, another culture, I think raising bilingual children is great. I would want my children to be fluent in English, regardless of where I choose to live, so I would expect the same if my future spouse had a different first language.

However, I don’t see the cutoff point as being sufficient justification to teach my children languages simply in the hope that they will find it useful as adults.

In Canada we have a program intended to teach French in this way, called French Immersion. While I have many friends who speak French well after twelve years of complete schooling in French, I’ve yet to find one that I could say speaks perfect, accentless French, the way my friends who immigrated to Canada before the cutoff point do.

Even in bilingual households, I’ve anecdotally observed that many of those children speak the language of their peers better than the language of their parents. It seems that raising truly bilingual children, who are equally and perfectly fluent in both languages, is hard.

Instead of force feeding my future children a language they have no connection to, I’d prefer to see them travel and learn a language as an adult. Sure, they might not reduce all traces of their accent, but they will end up having something more meaningful as a result.

  • David

    Yeah, it’s strange that people try to learn a language like a child. Children take forever to learn a language!

    By the way, I have a web app I wrote to drill Spanish verb conjugations. You can think of it like Anki, but for conjugations. Tenses are gradually introduced, and new verb-tense combinations are introduced at a pace you control.

    It’s mostly been just for me and a few friends, but maybe you’ll find it useful practice for your studies:

    http://spanish.dharmon.org

    You’ll probably want to uncheck the “Ignore vosotros” under Options since you’re learning Spain-Spanish.

  • Susanna Perkins

    Interesting article. You don’t say, but is one of the reasons for the accent/no accent divide because of auditory neural development? My mother grew up in Rochester, NY and she could never hear the difference in the vowel sounds like “ah,” “aw” and the “o” in “top” — which are very distinct sounds to me. Also, when my son was learning French I would try to say something in French to him and he would correct my pronunciation. I honestly could not hear the difference.

  • Michaela

    I’m actually super happy my parents took me to language classes when I was young. I took German when I was 5, grew up in a heavily Spanish-speaking region, lived in the Netherlands when I was 10 and took French when I was 11. I’m nowhere near fluent in any of those languages, but I did learn how to speak without a significant accent, so I can convincingly read any of those languages even if I don’t understand

    That makes language learning as an adult MUCH easier—I’m not struggling with both syntax/grammar/vocabulary and pronunciation. So maybe this is a case for exposing your children lightly to a huge variety of languages at a young age, rather than advocating for fluency in just one or two.

  • Andrew Cohen

    Great article. It could be added that one of the most frequently cited reasons for “total immersion” is that it allows you to absorb *totally* through the target language, without any translation to/from your native language. The problem is that, as an adult, I have a tool that I did not have when I was a kid — *I already know a first language.* The trick to learning a language as quickly as possible is to leverage that first language in the right way that will help increase your efficiency of study.

    Brainscape has created a language learning platform that breaks down components of a language into their smallest units, and creatively uses *translation* in an effective way. The potential learning detractors supposedly caused by using a translation-based study method (which actually don’t really exist) PALE in comparison to the learning benefits gained by the bite-sized-ness of the phrase translation pairs. Since the memory recall action for translation is so quick, you are able to have many more of them in a given amount of study time. The *number* of repetitions, spaced at the *right intervals*, is the most important factor in learning.

    I see on your other post that you have been using Anki for your vocab study. I think they have some great tools for language learning, and they could be a great complement to a curricular-based spaced repetition experience that you’d get in Brainscape. You might be interested to read our white paper about the science behind our language-learning methodology:

    http://www.brainscape.com/imag

    Either way, best of luck in your continued learnings!

  • Natalie

    I have a friend who moved to the United States from Spain at the age of 13. She has the barest trace of an accent that marks her as a non-native speaker, while her younger brother (I think he was 9 or 10 at the time they moved to the US) sounds like a regular, native English speaker.

    I’ll be interested to read your thoughts on other methods of language learning. Languages are a great passion of mine. I speak Russian fluently and other Slavic languages with varying degrees of fluency. Good luck with your linguistic endeavors! 🙂

  • Melissa

    I like your blog and I totally agree how the arrival date influences the accent. I think that the best way to learn a language is to live in the place where only that language is spoken. For example, learn Chinese in China/Taiwan and learn Bahasa in Indonesia. Nowadays, being bilingual is no longer sufficient as people become increasingly globalized and mobile.

    I grew up in Malaysia speaking four languages, namely English, Bahasa Malaysia, Cantonese and Mandarin. I learned German during undergraduate. My parents can speak 5 languages too. Now I’m learning French because I will be moving to Canada and traveling to Paris more frequently soon. Knowing all these languages is a big help when I travel.

  • Peter

    I knew of the fact you learn languages “easier” as a child, but never new of the cutoff age that determines speaking the language with or sans your mother tongue’s accent. Very fascinating insight.

    Inspiring as always!

  • Rhett

    Nor everything that children learn should be justified by the possiblity of future use. That would imply that wew knew way more about the future of any particular child then we actually can. Further, practicing things can have a shaping impact on the brain, even if what the practice teaches is never used. Handwriting, for example, might seem useless in the age of keyboards, but the research shows that it activates more of the brain than keyboarding and will effect the developing brain. Here is a popularized link to parallel research into childhood bilingualism. http://www.psychologytoday.com

  • nilesh

    Thank you scott for your newsletter i’ve learned how a kid goes from failing to ace his chemistry class by use of metaphors.i applied them to my study and it was awesome.and by the way your holisting learning e-book is also awesome.

  • Trent

    Interesting take on this topic as it is currently in vogue.
    Whole heartedly agree child should not be immersed in a language unless practical reason as author stated.

    My observations are based on experience with my son (now 20) and
    niece (13).
    Son spent first 3 years with Spanish speaking grandparents who spoke only Spanish during daycare time. (mother bilingual) Speaks no Spanish now nor does he express interest. He chose most dominant language at early age to exclusion of others.

    Same for my niece with Italian speaking (no English) grandparents.

    Suggest John McWhorter’s book “What Language IS (and what it isn’t and what it could be).
    •A take home point is that all languages accumulate excess baggage in the form of unnecessary/ useless words, rules etc… (Doe we really need to know the gender of a fork, spoon or light?)
    •Languages of conquest (Persian, English) have much less “baggage” than insular/tribal languages (Russian, Pashtun, Navajo, Ket etc…) because they were learned by many adults in conquered areas who ended up cutting out all of the to difficult to learn syntax (appropriately “dumbed down”).
    • English of today much easier thanks to “Dumb Vikings”. Much more Germanic before Viking conquests.
    •Children are able to learn complex garbled inefficient things such as languages because their brains are capable of learning almost anything, particularly during certain critical periods.

  • Robert

    Learning language, have someone speaking the language natively, go trough each letter in the alphabeth, make the native speaker give you feedback when you pronounce the letters correct until you can do them perfectly in the new language.
    That will train your vocal cords and hearing skills at the same time so speaking words then will be a lot easier to get right.

  • Victoria

    My first language is Romanian. My second is Russian. I have already three years in Bilbao, Spain. Before, I never had any kind of contacts with Spanish. But, after three years in the Basque region, I developed a Basque accent.

    When I was in Madrid, and I asked the taxi driver to leave me at the Bus station, he asked me:

    – Are you going in Bilbao?
    – How do you know?
    – You have a Basque accent.

    Well, this was a funny case. But since then, I realized that yes, my Spanish will never be Catalan, for example. 🙂 (like yours, since you learn Spanish in Valencia).

  • Samuel

    I think you addressed the idea that adults and children learn languages differently very well. But what exactly does it mean to learn a language like a child? Obviously, even without brain changes, the logistics wouldn’t be possible. As far as I can tell though, the idea of learning like a child most accurately (in the real world) comes down to tons and tons of input before output (a la AJATT). I’m curious what you think of this idea. I think we all agree that tons of input is necessary to become fluent but cannot agree when that input should come: after we have reached a level of fluency where we will be able to understand a good bit of it, or beforehand.

  • Roland

    If you look for ALG (Automatic Language Growth) in the internet and then click on Archives, you would find a lot of literature (short literature) on the subject. I specially recommend:

    LEARNING LANGUAGES LIKE CHILDREN by J. Marvin Brown
    THE SUCCESS OF SILENCE by Keith Challenger
    LANGUAGE IN THE BRAIN – A CRITICAL PERIOD? by Jonathan Farra

  • Vernon

    Great post! I found much of what you wrote very informative, being an adult foreign language learner myself. Just wanted to point out a small typo: the word “forth” should be “fourth” in the first sentence of your post. Feel free to remove this comment once you’ve fixed it!

  • Scott Young

    Rhett,

    Yes, but there is a nearly infinite amount of things you could have your children learn which would improve their cognitive functions. Why choose something useless that they dislike?

    Samuel,

    I didn’t want to make this post about which methods I recommend/disagree with, because that would muddle the point I’m trying to make that second language learning is, generally, a very different process than first language learning.

    As an aside, however, an example of this is “no using translations” rule some language ‘experts’ advocate. I completely disagree–translations and dictionaries which translate between words are a fantastic tool before you have the appropriate fluency to understand the definition of a word in the target language.

    Another is “don’t study grammar” (because children learn to speak without studying grammar). I agree that people can go overboard on this, but deliberately studying grammar can help make sense of rules that might otherwise never be learned simply through repetition.

    Trent,

    Very interesting theory, I’m curious to see if there is more research about it. The idea that languages frequently learned as second languages are easier to learn has some intuitive appeal, but I wonder if there is quantitative evidence to support it. After all, English may be light on conjugation but it’s highly irregular in pronunciation.

    -Scott

  • Si

    I agree that the child is going to fluently speak the language of their peers inspite of what the parents speak.

    However, knowing at least 3 other languages myself, I do see value in teaching your children whether that is at school or at home at least one additional language.

    One of the reasons being that children are very fast learners, faster than adults and therefore what is taught at that early age will have greater results.

    The only rule I would say though is you should only teach them if THEY themselves are willing to learn and not force them to do so.

  • sasen

    Scott,

    I think your example involving late removal of cataracts is quite fragile. Please see MIT Professor Pawan Sinha’s work! The TED* talk below gives a great overview, but basically, his team has found that our understanding of visual development after lifelong deprivation is overly pessimistic. They have not yet shown that “normal” vision can be acquired, but this work has encouraged me to question critical periods in language as well.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/pawan

  • Leo Toribio

    Great article, Scott!

    I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA in the forties and fifties when the city boasted at least three Latino nightclubs, so learning even a little Spanish was trendy — and that’s what I learned, little Spanish.

    In my pre-teens, the local Public TV station broadcasted French lessons, and I learned to love that language. While attending junior high school, I taught myself German so that I could read works by Nietzsche, Freud et al, and die Zeit (German newspaper). In high school, I taught myself to read Swedish so I could read books like “Det slutna Rummet.

    When I entered college, I enrolled in a German class which I was forced to drop because the instructor changed the schedule, conflicting with another class. The following year, I again enrolled in a German class, and when I asked the instructor, a native German speaker, how I sounded, I was surprised to hear him say that I spoke like a native Berliner Jew! Fellow college students from India taught me a little Hindi,
    and students from China shared Mandarin with me.

    In the mid-sixties, I spent a year in Vietnam, where the French language came in very handy and even helped me to learn Viet Anh (Vietnamese language), since more Vietnamese people spoke French than English. Much later, I spent several weeks in Germany, with side trips to Austria, ending in an additional couple of weeks in Paris, France.

    And when I dine at Chinese restaurants, I greet the staff, order food, and thank them in Mandarin.

    While I have no reason to brag about being a polyglot, I have learned that being even slightly conversant in different languages brings people closer together and makes the world seem like a much more comfortable place.

    Leo Toribio
    Pittsburgh, PA

  • Fabiana

    I agree mostly. However, the fact that you wouldn’t force your children early is because you DON’T consider the second language to be necessary; you only consider it a plus, an edge, a meaningful experience.

    I’m Venezuelan and I went to a British school in primary school when I was six to 12. Then high school in Spanish. And I am SO glad they did that because I won’t forget English, ever. Of course, I also kept reading in English, watching TV in English, but I still learned it in an intuitive way, even how to write, in a way that none of my peers in my Spanish high school did. Even though they saw it as ESL for over 10 years. So I would definitely put my children in an English school first, and not wait until they are older and decide they want to improve their English.

    There is also another consideration – whether you learn it as the first language at school or second (or third). I learned French for the same amount of time as English, still in my “critical period” but as a second language, and I’m nowhere near as good at French than English.

  • Eric-Wubbo

    Hmm… given the advantages that a bilingual childhood gives according to scientists (a 2012 New Scientist feature article discussed the bilingual brain boost) and the advantages of bilingual education gives (see for example the references in John Hattie’s “Visible learning”) I would myself think that trying to instill bilingualism in children may in itself be a worthy cause, even if the parents themselves speak the language of wider society. That being said, it’s probably relatively ineffective (if not more than a bit hypocritical) if parents who haven’t spoken anything other than English in their lives insist on having a Mandarin-Chinese speaking nanny. I think a bilingual education done in a smart, ‘seductive’ way (like described in “the education of Carl Witte”, or the book flood projects) is much better.

    Bilingualism is hot (see ‘Dora’ and ‘Ni hao Kai Lan’), but the effects of such cartoons on bilingualism (looking at N=1, my own niece) seem rather sporadical. One other observation that I can’t help sharing; some distant relatives have adopted a pair of Chinese girls, who came to the Netherlands age 1 or 2 or such. They speak flawless Dutch, but to put them into contact with their ‘roots’, their adoptive parents put them in Chinese class when they were about seven. But they neither liked the class nor seemed to learn there much (may also be a consequence of how the average well-meaning teacher teaches languages) – they were quite impressed when I was able to decipher some symbols on a Chinese bank note, even if I only studied Japanese to almost the lowest possible level! So yeah, if you want to teach children foreign languages, be smart about it.

  • Holden Lee

    In linguistics, learning a language as a child is called “acquiring” a language while learning a language as an adult is called “learning” the language. The difference is that when acquiring a language, one can know what “sounds right” with respect to grammar and word choice without necessarily being able to articulate the rules, while in learning one is conscious of the rules. There are three elements of language (pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary), and pronunciation is very much age-based (much easier to learn as a child). So if you were to teach a child a second language, you don’t actually have to focus on grammar and vocabulary as much as pronunciation (those can be learned much later)–in fact, just being in an environment where the language is spoken, without necessarily very regimented learning, could help quite a bit.

  • Radhika

    One thing to keep in mind is the huge disparity between speaking a language, understand a language, and being able to write a language.

    I’m trilingual, if the only requisite is understanding languages. (I’m on the verge of being quad-lingual, learning Spanish in school right now.) However, I can only really speak English. I can only write two of my four languages.

    I don’t really know what my first language was. I understood my mother-tongue, then forgot it for English, and even had a period when I actively spoke and understood both languages. (My sister did, too.) Language-learning as a child is a huge blur for me.

    Any thoughts on this? Do you know if there are different brain processes for recalling a language and understanding a language?

  • Ayana

    I’ve been living in Japan for 2.6 years now and every time I speak Japanese with natives they tell me they are surprised about my accent. It sounds so natural they say. I know it’s not completely true but they are used to hearing their language being butchered by foreigners. Even other foreigners I’ve met told me the same thing.

    At first I couldn’t understand why my accent was better than others but I believe it’s because I have a good ear for sounds. I also did a lot of mimicking and singing Japanese songs for karaoke in the very beginning of my studies. I still do sing and listen to LOTS of Japanese on my off time when I’m not even speaking.

    I never tried to sound like a native and I’m not particular impressed with myself sounding better than what others expect but I do think that mimicking and singing helps loads for anyone’s accent when learning another language. I just want to be understood. I’m all for understanding and being understood. I don’t want to say a word in an accent that would change the meaning of the word.

    I enjoyed this article. Good luck with your journey. I’m looking forward to more posts about it.

  • Baggio

    Hey Scott,

    Great hearing about your language learning endeavors as another learning challenge – have fun and best of luck with that!

    However, I don’t quite agree with your standpoint – I think that learning a foreign language DOES require you to learn it as a child would, because otherwise, what you’re doing is to learn the language as a “translation” of your language, instead of the language in itself.

    For example, if you had an apple, you’d know that in French, it’s “un pomme”, or in Chinese, “蘋果”, in Korean 사과, in Japanese リンゴ. However, you’d then associate these foreign words to “the English word apple”, instead of the OBJECT apple. This circumvention to native concepts and natural abstractions seems to be the barrier that differentiates what I see as language “purists” and “foreign language learners” – the former being those who are actually interested in acquiring the language as a native, the latter interested in the language as a foreigner.

    I think that at the end of the day, it really depends on what you want. This is the complaint I hear from most people about Rosetta Stone – because it advocates too much of a “learning like a child strategy”, even when this is the true method to acquire a language to a near native proficiency; whereas with a course like Rocket Languages, while you’ll learn much quicker, your proficiency will be at a considerably lower, albeit sufficiently operational level.

    I like to think of it another way as well – using proficiency tests.

    If you’re a foreign language learner, I think that at best, you’ll cap out at the C2 proficiency under the CEFR. This is great, because you’d have taken language learning to the utmost OPERATIONAL proficiency.

    However, if you’re looking to be a “purist”, I’d imagine you’re in a position to go higher – this is akin to having the potential to achieve a Level 7 taking a language at an A1 level in the IB curriculum…without the type of “natural acquisition” that’s used with the “learning like a child” method, if you concentrate solely on “translating from your native language”, it’s nigh impossible to do this…the finer nuances and shades of a language can only be deduced when you have enough of what we call 語感 in Chinese…or a “linguistic feel” of a language.

    Again, I think it really depends on what you want.

    Just my two cents. 🙂

    Baggio

  • Peter

    Good article but completly disagree that children shouldn’t be encouraged to learn another language just because they won’t use it. Languages are never “useless”. Such opinions can be very short sighted. If every subject in school came down to asking whether it “is useful”, I would not have studied physics, chemistry, history, anything beyond basic math and/or of course the two languages I studied. School would have been simplified down to maybe two to three subjects!

    It’s worth noting that Oscar Wilde and James Joyce were both multilingual – Wilde had German and French nannies, Joyce spoke Italian and French. The advantages go far beyond being able to communicate with people of a different culture. For example: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03

    I am a born English speaker, but languages were one of the highlights of my education. Some benefits were only evident years later – indeed recently I am working with one of those languages I studied, greatly benefitting my professional career. Thank God my parents opened the doors to this wonderful world – I live in Australia and its amazing to see how much the monolingual people here have missed out, culturally clueless to languages and even borderline ignorant

  • Scott Young

    Peter,

    Languages aren’t useless (otherwise I wouldn’t spend time learning them). It’s rather that I’m skeptical that most study programs aimed at children truly produce language results superior to those you could achieve as an adult.

    Baggio,

    You’re presenting a false dichotomy. In both French and Spanish I’ve learned many things without reference to a translation–associating with the object in question in the case of nouns. But I also use translations in many other cases because there are often direct analogs.

    I believe learn-by-translation is a useful phase as you eventually move to learn less and less by translation and more and more within the language.

    Fabiana,

    Perhaps unfortunately, English is the current lingua franca. The economic benefits of learning English are likely higher than learning most other languages. I say this not because I want to advocate monolingualism in North America, but because when you look at the difference in second-language education for English (vs for other languages in English-speaking countries) the stark contrast shows that the perceived marginal benefit is quite different.

    -Scott

  • Maria Sheils

    Scott, I was thinking about this when you first embarked in this adventure. You need a “mom” someone that speaks Spanish and goes along with you in your journey, so they can speak for you, and you can learn how to express what you wanted to say. Someone that corrects you, rephrases what you want to say and that talks to you while looking at you, so you can see how it is pronounced.
    If Spanish is difficult, wait until you tackle your other 3 challenges … You need to make arrangements, so you can be successful, even if that includes speaking in English to someone to make all arrangements. Your challenge is super creative, therefore you are learning as you go, change the rules, if necessary. Get a MOM or dad.

  • Said

    I totally agree that learnign languages that you don’t have a meaningful use for is usually a waste. I’m born in Sweden with Finnish and Iranian parents and I’m fluent in Swedish, Finnish and Persian and it is because I’ve had great use of those languages both in my personal and professional life. I’ve did study french for 7 years in school, but still have very basic undertsanding in it. I’ve studied Italian for 2 years and can conversate quite well. The difference is that I had the motivation to learn Italian which also made me learn it better.

  • Sebastian

    Learning the grammatical structure of a language first can be too complicated and stressful. We learned how to speak our first language way before we started studying at school.

    The best way (in my opinion only way) to learn a language is moving to a different country and living there for an extended period of time.

  • Scott Young

    Maria,

    …or a girlfriend. 😉

    -Scott

  • Christina

    In my experience, when people talk about “learning languages like children,” what they REALLY mean is “learning without feeling awkward or having to work really hard or deliberately,” because children don’t appear to do either as they are learning their first language.

    Children may not feel super awkward while learning language (they also pick their noses in public), but they work really hard! That’s why toddlers need to sleep 11-13 hours each day- it’s a lot to process.

    Learning another language as an adult will always involve both awkwardness and hard work. In that way, we can never really learn effortlessly by exposure, which is our incorrect perception of how children learn.

    But we can still do what children do, which is listen, repeat (until it drives people crazy!), change the pattern, test our assumptions, look for feedback, and do it all over again all day every day. And take lots of naps.

    (and a note about alleged critical language period – the most compelling evidence comes from feral children, who seem unable to acquire a first language after living a certain period without one; no one seems to know why second-language accent acquisition is so hard after 13-14 years old, but it could be a number of factors. you can still master a foreign accent though; it just takes a more time than most people are willing to put in.)

  • Chris

    I’m curious as to your research supporting this stance. My wife and I moved to Japan when my daughter was about to turn three, and she learned to speak fluently within 9 months. Now, she thoroughly enjoys both English and Japanese, and is eagerly interested in Spanish. My wife and I were not brought up bilingual, but I hold a degree in Japanese and elementary education, and my wife has minored in Japanese, with degrees in English and secondary education. Both of us have dabbled in TEFL education, ESL, and applied linguistics, and most of the current research we have been reading suggests that the critical period may not be as consequential as previously believed. In that regard, my own experience in learning and teaching JFL/JSL or EFL/ESL has led me to believe that creating a realistic environment that more resembles child-learning of L2 adults or young adults is much more conducive to learning and retention of skills for adults and young adults.

    Similarly, those with much higher qualifications have been suggesting the same for at least 13 years. I will point to the study below as an example, although it is not the only one. Similar publications by Dr. Roxie Sporleder et al. in brain-based reading research corroborate the findings, suggesting that it is not WHEN we learn, but HOW that promotes the most active development in language centers in the brain.

    I only ask because I don’t see citations for research in your article. You do, of course, mention studies in vision development, but I feel that falls under the fallacy of a false analogy, i.e. neural development of the eye and language skill development are not analogous.

    At any rate, I’d be interested in hearing more about what you think regarding the following study, “Three Misconceptions about Age and L2 Learning” by Marinova-Todd, Marshall, and Snow at Harvard Univ.

    http://www.utdallas.edu/~assma

    Cheers and good luck in your endeavors!

  • Scott Young

    Chris,

    My citations are from the book I cited earlier (Learning and Memory). Here’s a Wikipedia entry discussing the concept fairly: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C

    Other research supports the idea that accents (as I discuss in the article) may be subject to more stringent sensitive periods than other aspects of language acquisition (see research in above link)

  • Korrie Abotchi

    I love you outlook on not speaking English for a year! I married my husband almost 6 years ago, who is from Africa and speaks Zarma, French, and English. However when I had my first child I wanted her to learn French, but my husband thought it would be better is she learned as she was an adult. Because even though he speaks french it is not “Proper French.” I also agree with if you surround yourself in the culture and live in that states that you can hear and observe the language it will eventually click in our mind.
    Good luck on your adventure, I can not wait to hear more about your adventure.

  • Katrina

    It’s possible that learning a second language at a young age might make it easier to learn other languages later on…. similarly to learning a musical instrument i.e. being able to play one instrument makes it easier to subsequently learn other instruments. (Although I don’t agree with “forcing” either 🙂 )

  • Flynn

    What’s wrong with having an accent when you speak? I think as long as you can speak fluently, it’s all right. If the accent comes in between people understanding you, you just have to practice pronunciation more properly.

  • Raphael Barros

    The thing is : do you need to be able to communicate in that language in one year or less? If so, don’t bother with ALG or similar methods. But if you want to learn a language and don’t have a set time goal, I’d say go for immersion first, as much as your schedule allows you to (take all the music and the movies you watch and change all of them to your target language), than move to more “traditional”/”faster” methods.

  • Trey Dennis

    That’s why I’ve probably given on learning a language, because I’m probably too old to speak it without a heavy accent. I would speak it all if that’s only option.

  • Trey Dennis

    That’s why I’ve probably given on learning a language, because I’m probably too old to speak it without a heavy accent. I would speak it all if that’s only option.

  • Good article and thanks for pointing out the difference between first and second language acquisition (SLA). I’m glad to see that you acknowledge the existence of a critical period (CP). Some people create a straw man around this issue so that they can smash it down and come out as authorities on language learning.

    Having said that I don’t think it is easier for adults to learn a second language (L2). This does not preclude adults from enjoying the nice and enjoyable process of what it means to learn a L2, but this time it will usually be a combination of motivation, hard work and a certain aptitude for language learning. If not everybody is supposed to excel at math, why would we lower the bar for language?

    It is true that you already have a L1 and that adults are “smarter” than kids, but this is not an advantage in relation to children, who will all reach fluency in whatever language they’re exposed to regardless of their motivation or how “smart” they are. Having a L1 may be the greatest disadvantage adults have. In fact, having no grammar is an advantage for children, who build their grammar and vocabulary at the same time as they acquire the language. As an adult words are not related to their object immediately, but through the meanings already established in the L1 (Vygotsky, 1962).

    The CP raises much controversy. I have held discussions on the topic on Linkedin (one of them lasted over a year) and on Quora, where I answer questions on this topic regularly (http://bit.ly/1FOan1Q). The CP has supporters like Kuhl, Petitto (2009) or DeKeyser (2000) and opponents like Bialystok (1997) or Birdsong (1992) who downplay its role in SLA.

    Some authors argue in favor of affective factors and motivation. The very fact that adults need to take them into account points out the challenge that learning a L2 poses. Any child will acquire his or her L1 regardless of one’s motivation. Unlike in adults, we seldom see a 3 year old complain about “how hard it is to learn x language” to the point of “giving up”. Even kids brought up in harsh environments (e.g bad parenting) will achieve fluency in their L1. To falsify the CP, some people give the typical examples of “I went to Italy and through interaction I was able to speak the language in x months”.

    What these people refer to is the possibility of implicit (subconscious) learning. This topic has already been dealt with extensively by Schmidt (1990) and DeKeyser (2000) among others. Most of their conclusions suggest that adults can no longer access innate mechanisms for language acquisition and must rely on alternative problem-solving mechanisms, hence the marked individual differences in adults. Of course adults benefit from immersion, but in a different way than children. This time it’s a process of internalization that relies on your capacity for induction and abstraction, which are abilities that differ from individual to individual.

    There are some studies that claim that adults can be better learners than kids (Ferman & Karni, 2011). What this type of research fails to notice is that adults are more intelligent, not better language learners than kids. It overlooks Piaget’s developmental theory, whereby a teenager would have completed the concrete-operational stage, which would give older learners cognitive advantage over children. In other words, adults need to turn to their metacognitive strategies to learn a L2. This is good, but not an advantage in relation to children who will acquire any language without even knowing what a “metacognitive strategy” is. I agree that adults can be great language learners but I feel obliged to step in when people say that they can learn “easier” or “better” than children. It’s like saying that adults are better than children at going through puberty or menopause.

    The CP would conform a subtler type of transitional process where the organic ability to acquire L1 would gradually cease and be replaced by a systematic way which would draw on conscious problem-solving capacities to accomplish the same task (Petitto, 2009). The mind would distribute the L2 across different neural tissue and call in for help to other parts of the brain. In other words, whereas children would learn the language as they develop emotionally with the implication of the limbic system, adults would turn to their intelligence to accomplish the same task, hence the so many marked individual differences. Under this light, learners who attain native-like proficiency in a L2 would be a confirmation of the role that motivation, hard conscious work, affective factors and a certain aptitude for language play in SLA. Children are so good at language learning that they don’t need any of these strategies.

    Adults (not all) may learn faster, not better a L2. If adults were hard wired for L2 as they are for their L1 chances are there would be no language teachers or language schools. Anybody would be able to speak whatever L2 (e.g Chinese, Polish, etc) simply through interaction, like children do. This is clearly not the case. The presence of the L1 is the inescapable difference in L2 learning (Cook, 2008). Even experienced polyglots acknowledge that they need some kind of grammar phrasebook or guide to start with. Children do not need any phrasebook – even illiterate children will learn their L1 to fluency, regardless of talent, motivation, or affective factors.

    Terms like “effortless”, “subconscious” or “easy” in relation to language learning may be as futile as talking about an “effortless marathon”. I would also beware of messages like “I learned x language in this way, and so can you”. The “I can do it and so can you” is an assocation fallacy that goes like this:

    a) I can speak 10 languages thanks to my method.
    b) I am a human being.
    c) Therefore, all human beings can speak 10 languages thanks to my method.

    This is a fallacy because it overlooks the fact that I may have a talent for language, just like other people have a talent for other fields. Besides, statements like this overlook the meaning of “speak”. Is it A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2 level? People who get lured into this association fallacy may feel frustrated and blame themselves for not being able to learn the language in the same way.

    You may think I am being negative about adult language learning. Far from it, being realistic about the process allows us to devise better learning methodologies aimed at breaking the L1-L2 barrier in scaffolded ways. In fact, I am working on a language learning project and think many people will benefit from it. At the risk of self-promotion, it is called http://languagejourneys.com

  • Manuel Aicart

    Good article and thanks for pointing out the difference between first and second language acquisition (SLA). I’m glad to see that you acknowledge the existence of a critical period (CP). Some people create a straw man around this issue so that they can smash it down and come out as authorities on language learning.

    Having said that I don’t think it is easier for adults to learn a second language (L2). This does not preclude adults from enjoying the nice and enjoyable process of what it means to learn a L2, but this time it will usually be a combination of motivation, hard work and a certain aptitude for language learning. If not everybody is supposed to excel at math, why would we lower the bar for language?

    It is true that you already have a L1 and that adults are “smarter” than kids, but this is not an advantage in relation to children, who will all reach fluency in whatever language they’re exposed to regardless of their motivation or how “smart” they are. Having a L1 may be the greatest disadvantage adults have. In fact, having no grammar is an advantage for children, who build their grammar and vocabulary at the same time as they acquire the language. As an adult words are not related to their object immediately, but through the meanings already established in the L1 (Vygotsky, 1962).

    The CP raises much controversy. I have held discussions on the topic on Linkedin (one of them lasted over a year) and on Quora, where I answer questions on this topic regularly (http://bit.ly/1FOan1Q). The CP has supporters like Kuhl, Petitto (2009) or DeKeyser (2000) and opponents like Bialystok (1997) or Birdsong (1992) who downplay its role in SLA.

    Some authors argue in favor of affective factors and motivation. The very fact that adults need to take them into account points out the challenge that learning a L2 poses. Any child will acquire his or her L1 regardless of one’s motivation. Unlike in adults, we seldom see a 3 year old complain about “how hard it is to learn x language” to the point of “giving up”. Even kids brought up in harsh environments (e.g bad parenting) will achieve fluency in their L1. To falsify the CP, some people give the typical examples of “I went to Italy and through interaction I was able to speak the language in x months”.

    What these people refer to is the possibility of implicit (subconscious) learning. This topic has already been dealt with extensively by Schmidt (1990) and DeKeyser (2000) among others. Most of their conclusions suggest that adults can no longer access innate mechanisms for language acquisition and must rely on alternative problem-solving mechanisms, hence the marked individual differences in adults. Of course adults benefit from immersion, but in a different way than children. This time it’s a process of internalization that relies on your capacity for induction and abstraction, which are abilities that differ from individual to individual.

    There are some studies that claim that adults can be better learners than kids (Ferman & Karni, 2011). What this type of research fails to notice is that adults are more intelligent, not better language learners than kids. It overlooks Piaget’s developmental theory, whereby a teenager would have completed the concrete-operational stage, which would give older learners cognitive advantage over children. In other words, adults need to turn to their metacognitive strategies to learn a L2. This is good, but not an advantage in relation to children who will acquire any language without even knowing what a “metacognitive strategy” is. I agree that adults can be great language learners but I feel obliged to step in when people say that they can learn “easier” or “better” than children. It’s like saying that adults are better than children at going through puberty or menopause.

    The CP would conform a subtler type of transitional process where the organic ability to acquire L1 would gradually cease and be replaced by a systematic way which would draw on conscious problem-solving capacities to accomplish the same task (Petitto, 2009). The mind would distribute the L2 across different neural tissue and call in for help to other parts of the brain. In other words, whereas children would learn the language as they develop emotionally with the implication of the limbic system, adults would turn to their intelligence to accomplish the same task, hence the so many marked individual differences. Under this light, learners who attain native-like proficiency in a L2 would be a confirmation of the role that motivation, hard conscious work, affective factors and a certain aptitude for language play in SLA. Children are so good at language learning that they don’t need any of these strategies.

    Adults (not all) may learn faster, not better a L2. If adults were hard wired for L2 as they are for their L1 chances are there would be no language teachers or language schools. Anybody would be able to speak whatever L2 (e.g Chinese, Polish, etc) simply through interaction, like children do. This is clearly not the case. The presence of the L1 is the inescapable difference in L2 learning (Cook, 2008). Even experienced polyglots acknowledge that they need some kind of grammar phrasebook or guide to start with. Children do not need any phrasebook – even illiterate children will learn their L1 to fluency, regardless of talent, motivation, or affective factors.

    Terms like “effortless”, “subconscious” or “easy” in relation to language learning may be as futile as talking about an “effortless marathon”. I would also beware of messages like “I learned x language in this way, and so can you”. The “I can do it and so can you” is an assocation fallacy that goes like this:

    a) I can speak 10 languages thanks to my method.
    b) I am a human being.
    c) Therefore, all human beings can speak 10 languages thanks to my method.

    This is a fallacy because it overlooks the fact that I may have a talent for language, just like other people have a talent for other fields. Besides, statements like this overlook the meaning of “speak”. Is it A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2 level? People who get lured into this association fallacy may feel frustrated and blame themselves for not being able to learn the language in the same way.

    You may think I am being negative about adult language learning. Far from it, being realistic about the process allows us to devise better learning methodologies aimed at breaking the L1-L2 barrier in scaffolded ways. In fact, I am working on a language learning project and think many people will benefit from it. At the risk of self-promotion, it is called http://languagejourneys.com

  • Ellie Rey

    I completely share your point of view: “what wrong with having an accent! Even in the L1, people have an accent. One other point, I want to add is that the reason we have accents is that the mouth, gum, tongue and lip formations become firmed up by the time we are 12 to 14 years old, hence the difficulties in approximations of sounds in other languages.

  • Ellie Rey

    I completely share your point of view: “what wrong with having an accent! Even in the L1, people have an accent. One other point, I want to add is that the reason we have accents is that the mouth, gum, tongue and lip formations become firmed up by the time we are 12 to 14 years old, hence the difficulties in approximations of sounds in other languages.

  • Joanna

    Good article, Scott and I generally agree that adults learn languages differently than children (from research and my own experience as an adult learning foreign languages and also a foreign language teacher).

    However, you are assuming fluency= accent-less.

    Having or not an accent depends on more than just the mastery of a foreign language, but is more to do with the way our ‘speech apparatus’ develops and sound recognition, as well as how close phonetically your first language is to your second language. I’m not a linguist, but I understand this is the reason why Dutch people or Danes speak English so well with barely an accent.

    People who have managed to achieve native or ‘near native’ accents (as adults) often report that learning to speak with the right accent has something to do with having ‘a musical ear’. And this is also my experience.

    https://www.quora.com/Is-it-impossible-to-speak-a-second-language-as-perfectly-as-native-speakers

  • Joanna

    Good article, Scott and I generally agree that adults learn languages differently than children (from research and my own experience as an adult learning foreign languages and also a foreign language teacher).

    However, you are assuming fluency= accent-less.

    Having or not an accent depends on more than just the mastery of a foreign language, but is more to do with the way our ‘speech apparatus’ develops and sound recognition, as well as how close phonetically your first language is to your second language. I’m not a linguist, but I understand this is the reason why Dutch people or Danes speak English so well with barely an accent.

    People who have managed to achieve native or ‘near native’ accents (as adults) often report that learning to speak with the right accent has something to do with having ‘a musical ear’. And this is also my experience.

    https://www.quora.com/Is-it-im

  • Jorim

    I’ve experienced that having or not an accent also depends on motivation to get rid of your native language accent. I personally give an effort to speak languages as precisely pronounced as native speakers but other people like to keep (bits of) their accents because they consider it shapes how others see them (e.g. an Italian speaking English without an Italian accent is not immediately considered Italian, for which he or she might be proud).

    about phonetically closeness, I think, no matter how close two languages are, you’ll always have an accent as an adult learner, unless you specifically focus on not having any. Dutch is the closest language to English and their pronunciation is pretty alike, nevertheless I (having lived in the Netherlands), can tell apart the Dutch accent easily. someone who doesn’t know their accent might not be able to distinguish but the accent is present.

  • Jorim

    I’ve experienced that having or not an accent also depends on motivation to get rid of your native language accent. I personally give an effort to speak languages as precisely pronounced as native speakers but other people like to keep (bits of) their accents because they consider it shapes how others see them (e.g. an Italian speaking English without an Italian accent is not immediately considered Italian, for which he or she might be proud).

    about phonetically closeness, I think, no matter how close two languages are, you’ll always have an accent as an adult learner, unless you specifically focus on not having any. Dutch is the closest language to English and their pronunciation is pretty alike, nevertheless I (having lived in the Netherlands), can tell apart the Dutch accent easily. someone who doesn’t know their accent might not be able to distinguish but the accent is present.

  • Joanna

    Jorim, I can see your point regarding focusing on your accent.
    having said that, if someone’s learning the language and focuses on perfect imitation of the language rhythm, prosody, melody etc, they will also improve their accent 🙂

    And yes, it’s easier to distinguish accents/sounds/smells/tastes/colour you are already aware of. It’s like distinguishing a Geordie from a Mackem 😉

  • Joanna

    Jorim, I can see your point regarding focusing on your accent.
    having said that, if someone’s learning the language and focuses on perfect imitation of the language rhythm, prosody, melody etc, they will also improve their accent 🙂

    And yes, it’s easier to distinguish accents/sounds/smells/tastes/colour you are already aware of. It’s like distinguishing a Geordie from a Mackem 😉

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