The Focus on Age over Method in Language Learning Harms Children as Well as Adults

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.

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Some Limiting Ideas about Language Learning and an Alternative Approach

In my previous post, I wrote about how beyond being just theoretical, how we think about language acquisition can have real consequences.

To illustrate, I used an example of how misconceptions and limiting beliefs may have led a prominent person to give up on language learning, having consequences for his political career that in turn may have impacted a great many people.

In an interview, Canadian former politician and diplomat Stephen Lewis said he couldn’t consider a run for the leadership of a national party because he doesn’t speak French—a necessity given Canada’s official bilingualism and large populations of both primarily English and primarily French speakers.

He recalled that his efforts to learn the language included a one-month immersion course at l’Institut de Français in France where students must speak only in French, but he said that he was the first person in the history of the program to fail.

“I’m just really lousy in languages,” he concluded.

Lewis appears to have taken a number of ideas from his experience with the program and interpreted them to support this conclusion.

In this post I want to examine these ideas in more detail, and suggest an alternative approach that might suit many people better—perhaps especially those who, like Lewis, have assumed that they’re simply bad at languages.

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This Whole Language-Learning Thing Really Affects People

Sometimes when I’m thinking and writing about all of these issues around language acquisition, so much of it can seem so highly technical or theoretical that I wonder if it’s all just academic with little actual relevance to everyday people’s lives.

Then I see or hear something that reminds me of the real need for better ways for people to pick up languages, and the huge consequences of limiting or simply incorrect ideas about language learning, leading to many opportunities (and perhaps even languages!) being silently lost.

I looked at some of these limiting ideas in a recent post on heritage language learners, many of whom seem discouraged as a result of the influence of “traditional” language learning approaches that put the focus on the language itself through study and practice.

Without knowledge of how they can improve in their language through comprehensible input and meaningful communication, many of these learners appear to give up on their heritage languages despite the great foundations they already have in them.

I saw another example of ignorance around language acquisition having big consequences in a TV interview that aired several years ago in Canada, where English and French are official languages and Quebec’s status as the sole Francophone majority province shapes the politics of the country.

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