“Kids learn languages fast because they’re not afraid to make mistakes.” Mmmm… wrong.
I’ve heard on many occasions these types of statements, which are often used as encouragement for adults learning a second language, to inspire the learners to practice their new language without fear.
Language indeed requires practice and we shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes; and it is also true that kids tend to have less fear of social judgement. However, this thought processis flawed, because the fundamental process of first language acquisition is very much different from learning a second language as an adult.
Children do NOT learn a language fast because they have no fear, but because humans, up until adolescence, are born with a unique “superpower” to learn languages.
I remember this analogy from my professor in “Language Development” class when I was in grad school – Imagine learning to play chess by silently observing limited sessions of other people playing chess, with zero instruction, and with occasional random irregularities in the said rules. We can all agree that it would be a near-impossible task.
Compared to chess, language is infinitely more complex, with umpteen times more “units” and “rules,” yet children can figure it all out, with no overt instruction, and at an astonishing speed.
Many theories attempt to explain how kids learn languages with such ease. The most widely accepted theory is the innateness theory, first proposed by a linguist named Noam Chomsky. The innateness theory proposes that we are born with an innate ability to learn languages, a uniquely human ability, and as instinctual to us as a newborn’s suckling.
Unfortunately, this astonishing “superpower” dissipates at 12 or 13 years of age, after which it becomes much more difficult to acquire a language to the same level of competency as the first language. The existence of this “critical period” for language learning is hypothesized to be due to the lateralization of the brain, which happens at around the same age. The lateralization process solidifies the brain representations of our functions to either the left or right half. The decline in our learning ability after lateralization is also often used to explain other activities, such as sports and music.
Take my learning process for English versus French as an example – I learned English at 11 years of age when I moved from China to California. I remember watching TV every night. It seemed that at first, I understood nothing, and then all of a sudden, I understood everything. I have zero recollection of the transition to full comprehension, and did not take any English lessons. In stark contrast, I learned French at age 17, when I moved from England to Canada. I was living in a French environment and had a French boyfriend. Yet, I had to take French courses, study grammar, memorize vocabulary, and struggle with pronunciation… And after all that effort and 31 years of living and working in Quebec, my French is, while proficient, still nowhere near the level of my English.
Here, I have compiled a short (and by no means exhaustive) list of how first and second language learning differ –
1- First language acquisition (FLA), unlike second language acquisition (SLA), is an unconscious process.
2- FLA, unlike SLA (with very few exceptional cases), does not require overt instruction.
3- FLA, unlike SLA, does not require much input from your surroundings. Parents of kids who are delayed in their speech and language development often ask me whether it is because they work too much/don’t spend enough time reading to their kids/pay less attention to the child because of life circumstances etc. The truth is – no, it’s none of the above. The cause of a speech-language delay in children is almost always physical or genetic. When the cause is environmental, it is usually a case of severe, criminal neglect.
4- FLA, unlike SLA, is developmentally ordered according to their chronological age. We usually expect babies to sit at around 6 months, crawl at around 9 or 10 months, and walk at around 12 months. Similarly, we also expect them to babble at around 6 months, say their first words at 12 months, start combining words into 2-word phrases at 24 months, start using pronouns and the regular plural “s” at around 3 years, and tell a short story at about 4 years of age.
5- FLA, unlike SLA, is effortless.
As a speech-language pathologist specialized in accent reduction, I will add that accent learning also shares the same ease in childhood and having adolescence as the “critical period.” To understand why, refer to this article.
What has been your experience learning a second language? How old were you? What were your struggles? Please share!