Are children generally better English learners than adults?

Marian Herud

Well if I got a cent every time I’ve heard this statement, I’d have at least 2 Euros. You do the math. Anyway, people don’t seem to see it as a myth, yet they witness it very frequently, often in their own families. They have kids at home, the kids have English classes almost every single day, not to mention private tutoring, and yet most of them dismally fail. I mean, even though people see it, they stubbornly walk around claiming that English of adults will never be better, because they/we are too old to learn it and should’ve started much earlier, it's too late now and similar stuff. Oftentimes even teachers fall victims to this myth and tell their students “You must learn English now, when you are young because you’ll definitely need it later in life and it will be much harder to learn it then.“ As much as I agree with the “need” part, I cannot agree with the “later it will be harder” thing, definitely not if you learn English as a foreign language. Yes, it may be “harder” for an adult later in their life, but not because of mental limitations, or presumed tendency to lose your mental faculties as you grow older, but mainly due to all the things adults have on their agendas and simply cannot devote enough time and attention to improving their language skills.

As for learning a language, most adults tend to underestimate their abilities and, on the other hand, overestimate the (language) abilities of their kids or kids in general. We need to realize though, that adults have a huge advantage over children. In a word – experience. They understand more, they already know how the world works, they know most concepts, they have experienced them first hand, and they can grasp even the most complex and abstract structures. Also we have very different expectations about kids. We often don’t expect them to be overly sophisticated. Research revealed that children have fully developed grammatical patterns when they are around 4 years old, which is roughly 17,520 hours. Adults can reach the same level in 10,000 hours. The authors of the book Second language acquisition myths claim that BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skill) can be achieved in 24 weeks in case of “easy” languages (from the English speaker's perspective) such as Spanish, Dutch, French. Great! Half a year! Get in! It is not that easy though because this BASIC level can be achieved only if you study the language 6 hours a day 5 days a week. Now, all the Slovak learners of English, be frank to yourself and say how much you devote to English. 1 hour, 2 hours a week? To achieve a B2 level in English, according to CEFR system, you need around 600 classroom hours. Generally suggested ratio is 2 hours of self-studying at home for every classroom hour. So add the personal study time equating to 1200 hours and you’ll get an interesting number of 1800 hours. Honestly, most English learners are happy if they can come to their classes once a week for 90 minutes, and being burdened by many other things, there is no or very little time left for personal study time. OK, but even in this case….

Language schools in Slovakia normally have 90-minute classes, which is 1.5 hour class per week. If you aspire to achieve B2 level and you start from the point zero, and can’t/don´t want to spend any/appropriate amount of time studying at home, I´ve got a bit of math for you. 600 divided by 1.5 divided by 40 (weeks per school-year) and there you have it. 10 years! If you really can’t/don´t want to do anything at home, keep multiplying. And note I’m talking about naturalistic sort of teaching where meaningful and appropriately adjusted context is provided. If the language is dissected like a frog and taught/learned in a messy way, the answer to the question “When will I learn and master language communicatively?” might as well be NEVER. But nothing is so black or grey as it may seem. Even adults who receive an appropriate amount of quality input, who can meaningfully exercise their language and are instructed to use effective learning strategies can reach very good levels. There are some things that also need to be considered here. Adult language learners very often forget that when they compare themselves to children in terms of ability to learn languages, they project a certain prototype of child. The children they probably talk about is a monolingual child, having all the time he/she needs to listen, imitate etc. Also the input is adjusted. You don’t talk to a child as you would to your colleagues at work. You would use babytalk. But the most important is that the monolingual child acquires the language, whereas most of the learners in Slovakia learn it. It is hard (not impossible though) to acquire the language in a country where the language is not spoken, but it is even harder to learn it. There is a stark difference between acquisition and learning a language. Whereas differences between adults and children can be really profound when it comes to acquiring a language, in case of learning, everybody is in the same boat. So the bottom line is that children do not acquire language more quickly than adults and even adults can learn a second language to a very high level of proficiency in the same amount of time.

What can teachers do?

Teachers should definitely escalate motivation in students and also encourages adults to learn languages.

Teachers should also help students better understand how languages are taught and set realistic expectations, so students are not frustrated when they find out that learning a language doesn’t progress as quickly as they thought it would.