Do children really learn English faster or better than adults? The answer depends. Children who move to a new country do pick up the language faster than their parents, however it is important to examine the real reasons behind their rapid language learning.
English as a Foreign Language (EFL)
First off, to any EFL teacher (teaching English in a non-English speaking country), it is obvious that adults learn English much faster. Look at any textbook series and you will find that adults can cover similar language targets in 3 to 6 months that children cover over six years or more.
Adult EFL students learn faster than EFL children for many reasons.
* Adults are motivated to learn and are probably paying for the lessons with their own money.
* Many are studying for the purpose of improving employment opportunities or to travel.
* Adults can already read so they can progress much faster. While children are learning the alphabet, adults can already read complex dialogues.
* Older students can understand grammar and apply rules to targets they haven’t covered before. Younger children do not formulate rules, they indirectly learn the language through lots of exposure.
* Mature students are interested in a broader range of topics so they are more interested in reading about and discussing current events, hobbies, movies or learning about foreign cultures.
English as a Second Language (ESL)
So why do children who move to a new country pick up the language so much more effectively than adults?
The reasons are exactly those that make a good English class and teacher. ESL children, not EFL children, are naturally forced to live the four secrets to learning a foreign language I talked about in a previous post.
ESL children get exposed to English at a level they understand and are only slightly challenged with more difficult vocabulary. They watch children’s TV shows, play with other children, study basic English in ESL programs at school and even adults simplify communications so that the children can understand.
Adult English learners are not so fortunate. It is difficult to learn English from news programs and adult oriented TV. The language is just too complex for beginners. Everyday communications are difficult because few have the time or patience to speak slowly and simply for the foreigner to understand.
Children have limited vocabulary and say the same types of things over and over again. It doesn’t take long for ESL children to pick up on the names of toys, cartoon characters, food, game vocabulary, etc.
Adults are typically exposed to such a varied and massive amount of English that they have difficult beyond simple greetings and basic expressions.
Children learn in real contexts such as interacting with other children, playing with fun toys, watching animated TV programs or reading story books. All of these leave a much deeper impression than boring textbook dialogues or the cacophony of everyday communication that adults have to deal with.
Children receive massive amounts of comprehensible English input everyday. They study at school, they play with friends, talk with siblings, they watch children’s television programs, they do school homework, they play video games and use the internet. ESL children can get ten hours or more of English exposure daily.
Their parents are not so lucky. If they have little English skills, they will probably work low skilled jobs that offer little chance of English interaction. When they come home from work it is unlikely they are going to watch children’s TV programs and won’t understand much of regular TV. In order to communicate they commonly read publications or the Internet in their own language, meet country mates or just talk to their spouse or children.
While ESL children quickly get immersed in English, parents and adults only get minimal exposure.
ESL children do learn languages faster than adults, however it is important to note that children learn more because they have more exposure to language at a level they understand. It is not some genetic predisposition or wiring in the brain. (Although, there is an effect for much older adults.)
The difference between adults and children is very clear in EFL classrooms where the exposure to English can be clearly quantified. For every hour of productive English exposure, adults students will outperform children. The difference in ESL environments is that children typically have 20 or even 30 times the quantity English exposure at a level optimal to review and learning. ESL children are learning faster because they are practicing many multiples more than adults in the same environment.