I’ve written lots and even made a video pointing out a very common mistake made by academics and laypeople alike on the topic of second-language acquisition.
This is the conclusion that language learning is inherently more difficult and less successful with age, based on the observation that the older one begins to learn a new language, the worse the results tend to be.
What this assumption ignores is the vast differences between what adults and young children learning new languages typically do and experience.
Adults generally consciously study and practice new languages before they’ve even had much exposure to them, while children pick up languages implicitly, listening and understanding a lot before speaking much.
However, research and the experiences of many learners show that with a lot of comprehensible input—language presented in a way that’s understandable—adults too can pick up language without instruction as children do.
And some research suggests that if adults listen to a language a lot first without speaking it much, as children do, they will sound more like a native speaker.
Together, these things suggest that with the same kind of approach and experience as children, adults might actually learn languages as easily and as well as children do.
However, there is a lack of research that really tries to in that way control for the differences between typical adult and childhood language learning.
The common explanation for adults’ diminished results is that the maturing brain loses the ability to pick up languages easily and well.
This seems to have stunted research that would see how much the differences in what adults typically experience and do compared to children are responsible.
Even worse, perhaps, it appears the assumption that adults have lost the ability to learn languages like children keeps them from even being given the chance.
For example, there is very little in terms of content or classes that is both interesting and understandable so that adult beginners can efficiently pick up languages through listening without the need for study.
Instead of great experiences in new languages, adults get grammar books, drills, dictionaries, and study materials.
In turn, this lack of opportunities for adults to pick up languages like children, without conscious study or practice, makes it harder to do research into just how well adults can do so, creating a vicious cycle.
In this way, the focus on age over method that assumes that younger is better for language learning has done tremendous harm to adults, with perhaps many opportunities lost because of it.
How assuming younger is simply better for language learning also harms children
Another side that is just as problematic is how this focus on when we learn languages rather than how can cause tremendous harm to children as well as adults.
People talk about children picking up languages like sponges without paying attention to the kind of environment that children get to support this acquisition.
As a result, they assume that this seemingly effortless acquisition and fluency will happen simply because they’re children.
It is often true that when families immigrate to a country where a different language is spoken, the young children will spend far more time with the new language than their parents, so they will acquire the language much better and faster than their parents.
This difference in outcomes is common enough that it contributes to the perception that adults have lost an ability that children have.
However, it isn’t actually always the case that children in these situations are getting a lot of exposure to the new language.
In some cases, immigrant children are only hearing the new language in school, and that setting isn’t providing a lot of language they can understand.
For instance, the teaching may be focused on abstractions, and the newcomer children may have difficulty socializing with the other students because they can’t speak their language well.
When the environment isn’t optimally providing a lot of comprehensible input, the assumption that children will do fine because they “pick up languages like sponges” becomes downright dangerous.
Dr. Catherine Snow, an expert on child language and literacy development, addressed this problem in an introduction to One Child, Two Languages: A Guide for Early Childhood Educators of Children Learning English as a Second Language:
“One of the most widespread and harmful myths in our society is that very young children will learn a second language automatically, quickly, and easily—with no special attention to their needs for an optimal learning environment”
It seems as though for children as well as adults, there’s a lack of effort and know-how to provide them with the environment and opportunities that would guarantee them the comprehensible input they need to successfully pick up languages in a timely way.
I think the focus on age over environment and approach as the main factor in success or failure in language learning has been a main obstacle to addressing this problem.
Bringing “traditional” language teaching to younger students instead of comprehensible input to all
Another perverse outcome of this focus on age over method and means is how many schools are introducing language teaching at younger ages, based on the assumption it’s better to start younger.
However, they are doing so using the same kind of study and practice they use with older students!
This ignores the fact the younger students haven’t developed the cognitive abilities to do this kind of conscious language learning as effectively as the older students (I would argue that’s not the most effective thing for older learners either, but more about that in a minute).
Dr. Nina Spada, a leading expert on second-language acquisition, raised this issue in a speech on misapplications of SLA theory and research published in the journal Language Teaching.
What the existing research has found is that children ultimately do better than adults on average when they learn the language in a naturalistic setting.
That means an environment that supports picking up the language implicitly through many hours of immersion—for example, living among people who speak the language.
It’s this finding that’s been used to support the common assumption that younger is better for language learning.
However, when the language is confined to instructed settings where it’s explicitly taught and practiced, such as foreign language classes in schools, within this setting older learners do better than younger learners.
Dr. Spada says that with the widespread thinking that “younger is better”, this crucial distinction is ignored:
For example, Ministries of Education throughout the world are today revising their teaching policies/practices by moving the teaching of EFL [English as a Foreign Language] from the secondary to the primary level. There is little doubt that this is because the English language has become a valuable commodity for countries wanting to position themselves more firmly in the global economy. The decision to introduce English language instruction at earlier grade levels is based on the commonly held assumption that when it comes to learning an L2, earlier is best! However, once again, these decisions are based on research that has investigated age and L2 learning in the natural, not the instructional, setting. And the assumption that ‘early is best’ is deeply ingrained and difficult to budge.
She goes on to share an example that illustrates just how ingrained this idea is:
I had a recent experience that was a poignant reminder of these deeply held beliefs when I was invited with some colleagues to travel to a non-English speaking country to speak with teachers, teacher educators and representatives from the Ministry of Education about whether they should start EFL instruction in grade 4 instead of grade 6. We spent two full days giving papers and workshops, and participating in round table discussions with these stakeholders about research on the role of age in L2 learning. We described research showing that learners who start learning a language early in the school years do not succeed more than learners who start later when exposure to the target language is restricted to the school setting. We also described several studies showing that when the amount of instruction is limited (i.e. to two or three hours a week), there are no linguistic advantages for early starters over late starters…We were well received and our time with this group of educators was positive, but the latest information we have is that a decision has been made to begin EFL in grade 4!
With instructed learning, older learners are able to take advantage of their conscious abilities with language to do some things that might take longer to pick up through immersion.
As I’ve conceded before, explicit language instruction done well may be helpful in certain ways, though as we see here the students have to be old enough to have the cognitive abilities to take advantage of it.
For example, the instruction may help older students understand input in the target language that they would otherwise find incomprehensible, and it may allow them to communicate with speakers of the language where they otherwise wouldn’t.
These things can be helpful because older learners today lack much input that’s comprehensible to them when they don’t already know much of the language, and because, unlike young children, they often find they have to speak to people in the target language to get them to speak it back.
However, I think that this explicit instruction may come at a trade-off in terms of lower ultimate attainment.
A puzzle in second language acquisition is why older learners have an initial advantage over younger learners, as seen in how they do better in instructed settings, but do worse in the long run compared to those who start younger.
I think the key is that the abilities we gain with maturity can allow us do more with a new language from early on, like consciously construct sentences and translate, but doing these kinds of things interferes with acquiring the language as fully as young children do.
For example, trying to speak a language a lot without internalizing it through listening first interferes with acquiring accurate pronunciation and other features, and constructing sentences using knowledge of grammar rules interferes with being able to speak fluently without consciously thinking about it.
To understand this largely unexamined idea better, I recommend reading about the theory and history of the Automatic Language Growth, or ALG approach to language acquisition.
Research that has adults pick up language implicitly like children could help find clearer answers, but again, this research has hardly been carried out yet.
Though much as Dr. Spada warns in closing her speech, we have to look at context of what we’re doing and “exercise caution” at how we put research into practice, I think in general, much better opportunities for comprehensible input would greatly benefit both older and younger learners alike.
Instead of moving “traditional” language study and practice to younger ages, something not even supported by the existing research, there should be comprehensible input for all ages.
Comprehensible input-based methods such as TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling), which has been developed in classrooms with their time and resource limitations in mind, may be one way to provide better opportunities in schools for learners to acquire language instead of making them study.
But I think these opportunities for comprehensible input should be available not just in the classroom, but around every corner.
Unfortunately, the continued focus on age over approach, on how we learn languages over when, seems to be keeping this from happening.
Hopefully we will start to look less at their age and more at the method and means that appear to make children routinely successful: their implicit approach to language acquisition, and the abundant understandable experience with language they get to support this approach.
Then we will find more and more ways to make this kind of experience with language abundantly available for both adults and children who want and need it, so it’s no longer so much just left to chance.