If you Google the title of this blog, you will find a plethora of articles that extol the ability of children to learn a second language. You’ll read time and time again that children’s brains are like sponges, and they will soak up a new language easily. I want to emphasize that I am not a researcher or a linguist. I’m an ESL professional with 28 years of classroom experience, and I’m basing my opinion on my experiences in the classroom and research that I have read. I think the idea that children learn English more easily than teenagers and adults depends on whether you’re talking Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICs) or Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). To learn the difference, please go here.
Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills
I think we all recognize that most young English learners (ELs) in U.S. schools rapidly acquire the language required for social interaction in school. I think these children probably outperform adults in the area of pronunciation, because I never had to teach pronunciation to students in Grades K–5. Most ELs are more highly motivated to communicate socially with their peers than adults are.
They have many opportunities each school day to interact with others. These interactions can happen at the bus stop, on the school bus, on the playground, in the cafeteria, or in the classroom. These ELs spend 6–7 hours a day in a setting where people are speaking English. It must also be noted, however, that children do not have to learn English at the same level as adults to achieve communicative competence in the second language. A child’s constructions are shorter and simpler, and the vocabulary needed to be understood is more limited than it is for an adult.
It’s possible that adults may not learn social language as quickly as children. Adults aren’t usually exposed to the target language for as long as children, who spend their days in a classroom. Some research shows that it’s not necessarily harder for older learners to acquire English; adults are not necessarily less capable language learners than children, but they may just not have the same opportunities to learn social language. Also, learning social language is much more complex for adults than it is for children. Adults must also be concerned about how they are perceived by those with whom they are speaking.
Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency
For children who arrive in a U.S. school speaking little or no English, learning subject area academic language can be quite difficult. For many young children, it’s extremely distressing to be put into a school where they can’t understand what is being said or communicate with teachers and peers. Elementary teachers know from their classroom experience that young ELs do not soak up academic language. According to research in the field, it takes children 4–7 years to attain CALP at grade level. Any teacher who works with ELs will tell you that it’s exceptional for these students to learn academic language quickly and easily.
Older students and adults have access to the memory techniques and other strategies that more experienced learners use in acquiring vocabulary and in learning grammatical rules. They usually have a strong foundation in their first language to fall back on. If they’re learning language through methods that rely on grammar, they are more skilled in dealing with this approach and hence might do better and learn languages faster than children.
Studies that compare children and adults exposed to comparable material in the lab or during the initial months of an immersion program show that adults perform better, not worse, than children (Chacon, 2018; “Do children really learn languages,” 2016; Krashen, Scarcella, & Long, 1979). This may be because they deploy conscious strategies and transfer what they know about their first language. In a recent study at MIT, scientists proved that adults who begin learning a language before 18 years of age can become fluent in that language nearly as well as children.
I think that it is important for educators to examine this question and not automatically assume that children soak up second languages—especially in the case of academic language. We need to educate our schools to the idea that many young ELs struggle to learn the academic English of content-area instruction.
Chacon, S. (2018). MIT Scientists prove adults learn a language to fluency almost as well as children. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@chacon/mit-scientists-prove-adults-learn-language-to-fluency-nearly-as-well-as-children-1de888d1d45f
Do children really learn languages faster than adults? (2016). TELC Language Tests. Retrieved from https://www.telc.net/en/about-telc/news/detail/do-children-really-learn-languages-faster-than-adults.html
Krashen, S. D., Scarcella R. C., & Long, M. A. (Eds.). (1982).
Child-adult differences in second language acquisition Rowley, MA: Newbury House.