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Are young children the best second language learners?

A myth, in one of its senses, is a belief about something that is shared by many people, but which in fact happens to be untrue or only partly true. The field of language learning is full of myths and misconceptions, possibly because every literate person has been successful at learning at least one language and so may consider himself to be something of an expert on the topic. The myth that I wish to discuss in the present article is that young children are the best learners of a second language. This is a widely-held belief that contains an element of truth, but which for the most part has been disproved by recent linguistic research (see references at the foot of this page).

One reason why this myth has arisen may be that we are more tolerant of the mistakes of children than of older learners or adults. As an illustration of this, imagine that you are a German bank clerk, living in Frankfurt. On your way to work, you meet your American neighbour's 3 year old child, who is attending German kindergarten. The child says Guck, ich habe ein neuen Ball. (Look, I have a new ball.) You will probably think How cute! You note how well she's learning German, and may not even register the mistake in the indefinite article (it should be einen instead of ein). You get to work and the first customer you see is a British woman who wants to deposit some cash. She says: Ich will DM500 auf meines Sparkonto überweisen. Now you will probably not think How cute, but will you think Her German is good! or will you say: Es muss: auf mein Sparkonto sein (correcting the faulty ending in the possessive pronoun)? Of course this is an unfair stereotyping of German bank clerks (although exactly this happened to a British colleague in the bank in her second year here in Germany). However, it does prove the point that we are generally more patient and forgiving of the mistakes of young children than of adults. Indeed, although children make mistakes of both fact and grammar when speaking in a foreign language, they are far more likely to get corrective feedback only when they make a factual mistake. Adults rarely make factual mistakes and so most of the corrective feedback they receive is grammatical in nature. This may be one of the reasons why the myth that young children are the best language learners has taken such a strong hold.

Now consider another reason. Anyone with a young family who has lived for a while in a foreign country will have seen how easily and naturally their children interact and play with others of a different mother tongue. This is very different from how most adults feel when faced with the need to communicate in a foreign language. Many people however mistakenly attribute young children's comparative ease in new language situations to children's greater ability to learn language. But this is not the case. The cognitive demands made on a youngster are different from those which confront the adult. With children, everything is in the here-and-now. If they are having a dolls' picnic, for example, most of the communication will centre around the concrete objects they can see and handle. They also have the right to not to speak and just watch what is happening, or take part silently. Contrast this with the problems confronting the adult who has an appointment with her tax advisor. She does not have the option of being silent, and the whole discussion will be conducted in the abstract mode. No wonder, adults envy children their supposed facility in learning languages!

Of course, it is one thing to have dispelled the myth that young children are the best language learners, but it is quite a different matter to decide on which is the best age to start learning a second language. This is another complicated issue, and it will be the subject of a later newsletter article! (Incidentally, the element of truth in the myth lies in the area of pronunciation. Young learners are much better at acquiring native-like pronunciation in the foreign language than older learners!)

References


Snow, C and Hoefnagel-Hoehle, M (1978) The critical period for language acquisition: evidence from second language learning Child Development 49/4 (Quoted in Lightbown, P and Spada, N (1999) How Languages are Learned, Oxford)

Marinova-Todd, S; Marshall, D and Snow, C Three Misconceptions about Age and L2 Learning TESOL Quarterly Vol 34/1 2001


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