If language learning is harder for adults, why give them less and not more? Part three: Listening experience

In previous posts, I have been asking why, if the conventional wisdom is accurate and language learning is inherently harder as an adult than it is as a child, we don’t then help adults by giving them more of the opportunities that children learning languages get.

I focused on two areas: comprehensible input and a “silent period”.

Young children get abundant opportunities for understandable experiences in a new language, and a chance to listen and absorb the new language before speaking much.

In contrast, adult learners have difficulty getting the same quality and quantity of experiences, yet they’re often expected to produce a lot of the language from the start.

The AUA Thai Program uniquely provides adult learners with the experience and approach of child learners, giving beginners the opportunity to listen to Thai in a way that is understandable through experiences and non-verbal communication, allowing them to listen for hundreds of hours without having to speak.

The program is based on the Automatic Language Growth, or ALG approach, to language learning, which theorizes that adults can learn languages as well and as easily as children do given the same environment and approach.

It gets results, with students who are effortlessly able to speak Thai much more clearly than many would expect of adult learners, and reports of some approaching native-like levels of ability.

Whether or not adults have lost much of their childhood ability to pick up language, it seems they would benefit from having more and better opportunities, reflecting those that children routinely have, rather than less.

Dr. Patricia Kuhl, a neuroscientist, appears to support this view in her writing.

She espouses the notion of a “critical period” for language learning, where adults have lost the childhood ability to acquire new languages, in particular their sound systems, as she has described in a well-known TED Talk.

Like most researchers, Kuhl appears to attribute the lower results with age to changes in the brain without really looking at what adults typically experience and do differently from children, and attempting to control for those differences, as the AUA Thai Program has using the ALG approach.

But in her paper A new view of language acquisition, she notes the value of giving adult learners the same kind of experience that is helpful to children learning language—in particular, features of the way we talk to babies and young children, also known as motherese:

New training studies suggest that exaggerating the dimensions of foreign language contrasts (36), as well as providing listeners with multiple instances spoken by many talkers (113), are effective training methods. These studies show that feedback and reinforcement are not necessary in this process; listeners simply need the right kind of listening experience (36113). Interestingly, the features shown to assist second-language learners—exaggerated acoustic cues, multiple instances by many talkers, and mass listening experience—are features that motherese provides infants.

So while Kuhl asserts that adult learners as inherently disadvantaged, she also points out the value of giving them more of the kind of experience that children have.

Indeed, the things described in this excerpt can all be found in the AUA Thai Program: students get mass listening experience from many speakers through hundreds of hours of listening to many teachers, who often speak in an exaggerated manner.

And with this kind of listening experience, student can hear and produce the sounds of Thai correctly without the need for feedback—even as adults.

In general though, adults learning a language get less of this kind of listening experience in both quantity and quality.

As beginners, mass listening experience that is interesting and comprehensible for them is not easily available.

What’s more, the language adult learners hear, even from language learning materials and classes, is often quite flat compared to the emphatic and exaggerated way we talk to babies and children.

This exaggeration of sounds makes the sound system of a new language clearer and easier for the learner to pick up.

In all, the quality of adults’ listening experience is lessened, rather than heightened.

On that note, I have observed that many language exchanges and meetups take place in environments such as malls and pubs that can be extremely loud.

In general, it seems that adults have to contend with louder environments than children do, although this is a growing problem for children as well.

Excessive noise has been shown to hinder children’s language learning, in part because they can’t clearly hear new words, as one recent study has found.

If we assume language learning is harder for adults’ brains, why not also avoid such noisy environments and help create a better listening experience?

In these posts I’ve focused on three major areas of language learning experience: comprehensible input, or exposure to language in a way that’s understandable, the silent period, or the opportunity to listen and internalize new language before having to produce it, and quality listening experience, or the opportunity to hear new language clearly and repeatedly without distractions.

In terms of opportunities for these experiences, adults are disadvantaged in compared to children.

But I don’t think it has to be this way.

Whether or not we agree on whether adults have lost the early childhood ability to effortlessly pick up languages and become like native speakers, we should agree that we ought to give adults more of the things that have been found benefit children learning languages.

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