How many times have you heard that it’s best to teach other languages to children while they’re young because they learn so much better and faster than adults? How many times have you heard that when a person learns another language as a child, they won’t have an accent in it? I can’t count how many times I’ve been told that children learn other languages better and faster than adults, and I feel to some degree that there’s a message being sent that adults aren’t good enough, can’t do as well as children, and almost like we’re a lost cause. However, I personally don’t feel that adults are inferior and that we don’t necessarily have to learn less quickly. I feel that at least in part, expectations and time availability, listening skills and embarrassment play a role in adults learning languages slower and with worse quality and fluency. When someone is told they can’t do something frequent enough, the person begins to believe it, they may cease trying with as much vigor as they would had the messages been positive. For example, when a child is taught they aren’t good enough and that they’re dumb, the child may eventually grow to believe it, and a child that is actually intelligent may get lower scores on tests and assignments. I feel a lot of it has to do with positive messages, self-esteem, feeling valued, belief in one’s abilities, and the amount of encouragement.
Second, children seem to have a lot more spare time than adults do. They have the time to focus on learning what they want, but on the other hand, adults have to adhere to a faster paced life that has many responsibilities and demands that children don’t have. Adults must work (many work a lot of overtime nowadays), take care of their children, keep up the home, cook, run errands, pay bills, etc. We’re left with less time to be able to sit and focus for consistent long periods of time to learn many things we’d like to learn.
I’m starting to learn Spanish, and I’ve attempted to many times throughout the years, and these are some of the reasons I feel interfered with my ability to learn the language. Most of my time was dedicated to studying for my degrees to the point I felt I didn’t have time to consistently take large chunks of time daily to focus on learning a language. I’d make attempts that would last possibly two weeks, but then as the semesters got busy in each of my classes with reading the textbooks, studying for tests and quizzes, writing papers, doing projects, doing research, etc., I just didn’t have the time to commit to it. I even remember someone telling me to try to translate my textbooks into Spanish, but that would have taken way too much time to do and I would have ended up studying Spanish more than the material I was supposed to be learning to be graded on – that’s no short and simple feat!
I used to feel that the best way to learn a language was by studying using books (we each have a preferred learning style we’re naturally better at), but it didn’t really help. The way textbooks are written seem far away from how people really speak in their languages (speaking only present tense for the first year, subject matter or lack thereof, etc.). Most of the time, Spanish speakers told me the best and quickest way to learn a language was by immersion. I was told to have people speak only Spanish to me, or to watch Spanish soap operas with subtitles. I tried watching soap operas and they didn’t work. They spoke too fast and it was too hard to read fast enough to keep up with the subtitles and remember what flashed across the screen to make it into long-term memory, which is the key. I was also around a lot of people that spoke mostly Spanish, and I learned nothing because it lacked context, and they spoke so fast.
I don’t know how many times I gave up the idea of learning Spanish until I finally started reflecting on the differences of how children versus adults learn language. Many say the best way to learn a language is through immersion, just having someone only speak to me in Spanish, and that’s the way that children learn language. However, I feel that most adults don’t realize that while, yes, immersion is the best way to learn, the way children are spoken to versus adults are very different as well as the expectations.
The first year-and-a-half of a child’s life are spent mostly listening and babbling, but not really speaking, yet it’s important not to dismiss that time because while they may not be speaking, they’re still learning. Many times children will follow very simple directions long before they start speaking, indicating that they understand long before they speak. The way adults speak to children is very different from the way they speak to other adults. Adults may speak only a word or to, maybe a few, to children and then gradually progress to simple sentences as vocabulary and understanding progress. When adults speak to other adults in the immersion technique, they don’t start simply and increase in complexity gradually. Instead, the person trying to learn the language is thrown right into fluent, adult conversational level of the language. Meaning, we start slow and simple with children and slowly increase the level we speak with them over time, however, with adults, we just jump right in to the advanced or expert level and expect the one learning the language to somehow become fluent in two months to a year’s time. It’s unrealistic, at least when learning the second language.
Another difference that I noticed between children and adults learning or being taught a second language (and children learning even their first language) is context. When adults teach children language, it isn’t only simple and gradual at first, but there’s a plethora of context! It’s context that provides understanding, not so much how frequent we hear a language. When children are learning language, parents and other adults point to objects, say the word, and there’s plenty of repetition. They speak slower and simpler. Adults read simple books to children, buy children toys that teaches them vocabulary through interaction that has plenty of context. There are many children’s books that focus solely on vocabulary building as well where there’s no storyline, only a picture with the word of what the object is. For example, there may be a picture of a lion with the word “lion” under it. The expectations and way we immerse children versus adults into learning language is very different.
Yes, immersion is the best way to learn and it’s ultimately the way children learn, but what’s key is context, simplicity, repetition, starting slow and gradually increasing in complexity and speed. No one speaks to a baby or a three-year-old the way they speak to a 50-year-old adult. They also tend to teach children words that are more concrete rather than abstract first. It’s easier to point to a picture of a lion and say “lion” than it is to show them what “I love you” is, or “how are you?” As adults, we still have some abstract words and phrases that we say to young children, but we don’t expect them to understand it so quickly. When adults speak to other adults in the immersion technique, it doesn’t seem that it starts with the concrete words and concepts and gradually moves to or includes the more abstract. For example, how do you teach the abstract concept of “repetition” to adults in another language versus teaching them “door”? It may actually be a little easier to teach adults about abstract concepts and words, however, because we can simply give them the translation in their language, making it more concrete, and because their ability to understand and think on an abstract level is well developed. We can therefore say, ” ‘Te amo’ means ‘I love you’ ” to them. Perhaps starting with more of the concrete, or high context words and phrases are more important to start with pertaining to adults.
I feel that if we truly used the exact same immersion method of language development for children with adults, and making sure the words are immediately relevant to their lives that they’ll use frequently from the start, they will learn the second language much faster. Watching soap operas with subtitles isn’t helpful because it’s more of a lesson in speed reading without the focus on actually learning and retaining what they’ve read and allowing it to be transferred from short-term memory into long-term memory. I feel that adults need to start learning other languages the same way a child learns, but as I said, making sure it’s high-context, simple, relevant, and something they’ll use frequently right away. With that method, I do agree that immersion is the best way to learn a new language, and it may not be so much that adults can’t really learn other languages well because of their age.
Finally, there’s the issue of pronunciation. I agree that adults may not learn a language without having some type of accent, but is that really important? Accents add flavor and tend to be beautiful rather than something to be ashamed of. Who doesn’t like an Irish accent, an English accent, a Spanish accent, an Italian accent, a Jamaican accent, or even one of many accents from Africa (Cameroon, Nigerian, etc.)? For those who may speak with a really, really thick accent to the point it sounds like they aren’t even trying, it may be just that. They may not be trying to speak the true sound of the language, but speaking just enough to be understood, however, they aren’t always easy to understand if they don’t put some effort in. The lack of effort could be rooted in embarrassment or feeling they’d sound worse.
When someone whose primary language is English, there are many that don’t sound good when they speak Spanish. It sounds like some of those people aren’t even trying because they’re pronouncing the letters, words, etc. with the way the letters sound in English, not Spanish. They either fail to truly listen, they don’t seem to put in the effort, or perhaps hearing isn’t their strong point (in this case, it’s more understandable). When learning a language, it’s important not to speak it using the sounds of your primary language, but rather, learn and use the sounds of the other language as closely and as much as possible to minimize the accent (there will always be some type of accent, but there’s a difference between effort and little effort). I’ve been told by those who have heard me speak any Spanish that my pronunciation is very good. I still have some type of accent, but it’s very good compared to many whose first language is English. I feel the reason for that is because I don’t try to speak or pronounce Spanish by forcing the use of the sounds of letters, etc. in English.
With these concepts in mind, I feel language learning in adults would rapidly speed up the process. We must view ourselves as children learning, and those helping us learn their language must start out with the simplicity they speak to a child with when teaching them their language.