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Children learn languages quickly and effortlessly, adults slowly and painfully. This is an idea I’ve seen or heard so many times that I feel it’s time to write something about it. The notion that children are better language learners across the board is simply wrong. Before we look at why this is relevant for us as Chinese learners, let’s discuss why adults are actually better language learners than children.

Children don’t learn their first language quickly and effortlessly

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/LotusHead

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/LotusHead

It takes many, many years for a child to learn his or her first language. Saying that it’s effortless is equally false, it’s just that we don’t remember how hard it was. I’ve studied Chinese for five years and I can promise you that my Chinese is far superior to the average five-year-old in most areas (I would probably lose when it comes to intonation).

That’s true even considering the fact that I’ve been doing many things that aren’t related to Chinese at all, such as writing articles for this website (in English), talking with friends and family (in Swedish) and so on. I have not experienced anything near the true immersion environment of a child. Learning a language is very hard, both for adults and children.

One reason that people believe that children learn faster is that much less is required of them. Adults who arrive in a new country are supposed to handle all aspects of a normal, adult life, which naturally demands a great deal in terms of language ability. We don’t demand the same kind of proficiency from children. We only increase the demands gradually as they grow up and learn the language. As adults learning a second language, we’re adults and children at the same time.

Children might also learn to perform very well in a limited set of situations and in certain contexts, which might lead others to (erroneously) think that their ability is as good in other areas as well. Adults are more likely to run into problems because they need to or want to express more complex ideas.

Adults are much smarter than kids

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but adults are much better at planning, analysing, executing, organising, deducing and so on. These are all skills that are very valuable when learning a second language.

Also, adults know a lot about the world that kids don’t. This means that we can often connect new words with things we already know, which is essential for any kind of learning. I can relate words and structures in Chinese to words and structures I know in other languages. This is of course only a crude form of scaffolding, but it definitely helps. If I see the word “progressive tax” in Chinese, I don’t need to learn what progressive tax is, I just need to learn how to say it in Chinese.

Hacking Chinese is of course a prime example of something that an adult language learner (myself) can do, but that a child cannot. I can observe and analyse my language learning and understand where I’m having problems and what to do about them. I can be systematic and plan my studying in an efficient manner. After five years of studying, my language level is apparently good enough to survive a master’s degree in teaching Chinese as a second language taught entirely in Chinese, mostly aimed at native speakers.

This obviously takes much, much longer for a child (the average age of my native speaking classmates is more like 25 rather than 5). Most people go through nine years of elementary school, six years of high school and then four years of university before they do that.

I don’t mean to say that my own language ability is as good as my classmates’, though, far from it. Very far indeed. But using a language successfully is about much more than just words, grammar and pronunciation. Language and thinking are closely linked, which is why the more mature mind of an adult reaches a mature language level much faster. We take lots of shortcuts that aren’t available to children.

What we should learn from children

Still, children do have certain advantages. For instance, they definitely reach a higher level in the long run, especially when it comes to pronunciation. As mentioned above, my ability to express myself in Chinese (both in speaking and writing) is of course superior to a five-year-old, but in the long run, Give the child another five years and I’m left far behind in terms of pronunciation and accent. The native speaker will also have a more natural sentence structure and a better grasp of everyday language.

The reasons for this are many and various. Some of these are biological (children really do learn words very quickly, for instance), but let’s focus on the things we can learn from. To start with, children have extremely strong incentives to learn. Humans are social beings that crave contact and affinity with other humans and this is mediated through language.

Thus, no child will think to itself “learning this language just isn’t worth it, let’s do something else”. Instead, they will try very hard to fit in socially, which includes the ability to communicate flawlessly. There is no way that a second language learner can have such strong incentives to learn Chinese, even though it might be possible to come close.

The lesson we can lean from this is that motivation is something we need to consider carefully. We need to find ways of studying that we find interesting, entertaining or important in some way.

Moreover, children are less socially conscious than adults, or, in other words, they have less face to save. A baby doesn’t care if it pronounces “lamp” incorrectly or gets the word order of a sentence wrong. Kids care more than babies, they are subject to peer pressure and so on, but they are still more willing to experiment than adults. This is something we should remember as second language learning adults. We have to accept that making mistakes is a natural part of learning. Indeed, making mistakes is learning. Adopting a more child-like attitude would do us good.

Children aren’t small adults

Way back in history, people tended to regard children as adults, but smaller. In the light of modern developmental psychology, this is of course nonsense. Children are simply different from adults. This means that arguments like “it works for children, therefore it should work for adults as well” are bunk.

This isn’t an argument against any particular method, but if anyone motivates their approach with this kind of statement, an alarm should go off in your critically thinking mind. That it works for children might mean that it doesn’t work for adults, for instance. Or it might mean nothing at all, because we’re comparing apples and oranges.

Adult learners, pronunciation and fossilisation

I think the most obvious example is pronunciation. Almost all children achieve very good pronunciation and a natural accent in languages they start learning early. Most adults who start learning a second language don’t achieve this. As I said earlier, children do learn pronunciation and accent to a higher level than adults do.

However, this is not only because they are children, but also because adults tend to have fixed ideas about certain things. Learning to speak a foreign language involves a shift in identity, a shift most people aren’t willing to make. The incentives are also different. People would find it very strange if someone pronounced words incorrectly in their first language and would exert social pressure on that person to change. This isn’t true for adult learners, especially not advanced ones. Communication is usually deemed to be enough. That is, I believe, the main reason adult learners don’t reach a native-like pronunciation.

Conclusion

Children learn languages neither quickly nor effortlessly. Adults have several advantages that allow us to learn more efficiently. It’s true that children achieve better pronunciation and accent, but I personally think this isn’t mainly because they are children, but because adults don’t care enough,  don’t receive enough feedback or don’t spend enough time.

So, no, you’re not too old. You might be too lazy, too close-minded or too busy, but you’re definitely not too old.


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21 Responses to You might be too lazy to learn Chinese, but you’re not too old

  1. profan says:

    somewhat related to language acquisition:
    http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/198311–.htm

  2. Matthias says:

    Very interesting point about reaching native-like pronunciation because of peer pressure. I’ll have to think about this theory.

  3. Gerlinde says:

    When I did a survey for a linguistics class at uni I found results that go along with the case you are making.

    What I did was, I talked to about 30 Thai people between 20 and 45 who were living in Germany. And I was surprised when some whose German was very good told me how “late” in life (25+) they had begun learning. Before knowing this, I had “of course” assumed they had learned it early and been living here for years.

    After talking to all these people, I realised just how important motivation and attitude were.

    Another thing your article reminded me of was my Spanish class in high school. Some of my classmates simply refused to pronounce Spanish in a “spanish” way. It puzzles me to this day as to why and how!

  4. I was a little surprised to read you comparing an adult learning an additional language with a child learning their first language. To me, these things are totally different because of many reasons which you yourself mention such as scaffolding. Adults are learning a new language, a different means of communication but kids are learning to communicate.

    For kids learning a second language, there are massive differences even just between kids and teens (nevermind adults) for many of the reasons you touched on here. All three groups can learn a language well, but they do it differently. But I feel like I’m getting off topic with that…

    • Olle Linge says:

      The only reason I bring up children is because other people tend to do that and use it as an argument for why they (the adults) can’t learn a a new language. I did explicitly say that you can’t compare children and adults. The point of the article is to convince adults that they can learn languages, it’s not meant to be a comparative analysis of child vs. adult learning. Thanks for highlighting this, though. The problem with comparing first language acquisition (kids) and second language acquisition (adults) is that we’re changing two variables at once (age and first/second language), which is bound to make most conclusions useless.

      • Really? I’ve never heard that as an excuse before. Only from a pronunciation standpoint! I guess I see why you wrote this in that case.

        Yes, it was the two variables that didn’t make sense.

  5. Tyson says:

    Thanks for writing this up Olle. I have been told this this “fact” so many times it’s depressing. Great to have a go-to article to ask people to think a bit more deeply on what is frequently accepted as fact.

    So many things come down to motivation – and strategies to improve motivation (move to china, date a local, learn when young) can become excuses (can’t move, already married, too old). If you are motivated you’ll spend the necessary time.

  6. KalanStar says:

    Overall a good article, but… The arguments against children’s abilities are a bit misleading. Having studied language acquisition and second language acquisition from a developmental psychology and biological level, I can assure you that children posses far superior language learning abilities than any adult does.

    Basically children are hard wired to learn language at an amazing rate without instruction. Sure your Chinese may be better than the average Chinese 5 year old, but you’ve been studying it, they haven’t. Rather than comparing yourself to a five year old Chinese kid you should be comparing an adult that has spent no time studying Chinese while living in China for 5 years. I think you’d come to a different conclusion than you did.

    At a biological level, especially where language is concerned, the human brain goes through a massive die off of physical material at about 7 years old. Then again at the start of puberty, the brain goes through a similar die off of physical connections. Basically as we mature, we in effect, know more things but loose the ability to learn new things.

    In my career, I have met 4 year olds that could translate between two languages, instantaneously. Many adults, no matter how proficient in languages can never ever hope to achieve that.

    Not only do kids have more connections in their brains for acquiring language, their brains are also physically expanding and organizing. Thus, hen a child is exposed to multiple languages from birth preferably, they physically grow different language centers on both hemisphere’s of the brain. You can actually see it in scans of children with 2 or more languages vs children with just one.

    And lets not forget, babies, before they can even speak, when the are making googoo gaagaa noises are learning the grammatical rules and pronunciation of the language(s) they are exposed to. Even when adults are repeating these same baby noises, the children are learning correct vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar from listening to the adults speak to each-other. Imagine every Chinese person an adult foreigner comes into contact with mimicking English to the hapless outsider, yet them still learning Chinese correctly. There isn’t adult smart enough to do that.

    Finally, the claim: “adults are smarter than children”, I find particularly distressing, and not just where language learning is concerned. The problem with this idea is that it more often than not leads to adults limiting the abilities of children. I can’t count the times I’ve heard teachers say that their students “can’t” do something without ever giving them a chance to try. In language teaching this is the greatest detriment to children’s mastery of their own or a foreign language. Between the ages of 3 and 6, not only can the average Chinese child be taught to speak, read and write in English (for example), 100% of them can learn it. Too often it is the case in China that English language teachers do no more than teach vocabulary in association with pictures and nothing else in ESL schools because they believe they are smarter than the kids and kids can’t do anything else.

  7. George says:

    I arrived in Taiwan and started learning Chinese, and Taiwanese at 43 years old. Prior to that, I was strongly biased against attempting to learn a foreign language.

    Progress for me has been sporadic because my first priority in Taiwan was teaching English well, not learning Chinese. And I may the task more complicated by trying to learn to read as wells as to speak early on. Since the use of dictionaries and the kind of mental association with characters is very visually demanding, I’d say that was a huge distraction.

    But here I am at 65 and I speak and read a bit of Mandarin. My listening and reading are getting better as I use local TV to both listen to dialogue and read the Mandarin sub-titles.

    So, I’d definitely agree that one can start late.

    And we do get a lot of Taiwanese that feel they are too old to learn a foreign language. Everyone tries to have the children start very early, but adult education classes in English have decreased in the past 20 years. Adults real problem is they find their lives too busy to regularly attend language classes, whereas it is easy to tell a child that they just have to keep going.

    Before puberty there is a strong argument that the brain is quite different and language learning may be acquired in a different manner. I suspect that such children acquire all the language on an equal basis. After puberty, the issues of 1st and 2nd language are more in play. One tends to follow their educational environment as a path to which language to think in. In Taiwan, it would be Chinese, but in the Phillipenes it would be English… just because that is what classes are taught in.

  8. Yes! This drives me crazy, when people are like “my brain just can’t learn another language.” Not true, and it discourages the people who are trying to learn a 2nd language. Yeah, learning Chinese is a lot of work, but guess what, after you do all the work, then you can speak Chinese. There’s nothing impossible about it.

  9. Alison says:

    I was fascinated to watch my 9 year old pursue her intent to learn German. She wanted to be able to read the German children’s literature set in the Second World War so she could compare it with the English genre. I found her a textbook with the main lessons in a cartoon format and there was an audio set with additional conversations and songs. She followed the cartoons while listening to the tape but also had the tape on as she was doing other things. She absorbed all the material in the first two volumes before she spoke a word. Then she started to play with the language. One day she baked a cake and I reminded her that the washing up was her responsibility. She took two hours over it, inventing complex conversations and interactions between the utensils, the bubbles .. everything, all in German. If she lacked a word, she made one up that sounded German. She modified the songs and sang them on behalf of the utensils. She never paid any attention to vocab lists or grammar points but she played frequently in this manner and her brother learned alongside her without any intention. They gave it so much time using ‘varied repetition’ in play. It was never boxed into ‘German study time.’ I thought at the time that if adults had such an approach, they too could learn very quickly, though pronunciation would never be perfect.

  10. Tanya says:

    Some really good stuff in here. It is difficult to accurately compare how children and adults learn language – the method, environment and expectations are vastly different. Yes, adults can (and frequently do) learn languages very well. Unfortunately, it seems to me that children can ALL pick up language (as their brain are wired for it) whereas in adults the proficiency leans more on their individual skills, and deliberate study rather than simple immersion. The unfortunately reality is that some adults will ALWAYS struggle with accent and pronunciation as they do not have the ear to mimic precisely. Others find it extremely difficult to shift their mindset to a completely different way of thinking used in another language. I speak Mandarin with an excellent accent and good enough vocabulary to be considered fluent by others, if not always by myself. I put a lot of hard work into learning this language, but I was also aided by innate talent and early exposure to languages in general and Chinese specifically.

  11. I began spoken learning Chinese when I was 32. Within two years I was conversationally fluent. Reading remained an issue, but the conversation can be picked up with dedication and putting yourself in a non-English speaking environment and having Chinese friends. I didn’t bother with tones, I used to write down phonetics as I heard words in a book. Little by little it began to fall into place and I learned to construct sentences properly and so on.

    However there is no such thing as ‘fluent’ Chinese. The dialects are so different. Which is why learning to read and write is so important, if you don’t understand wahts being said you can still write the character. Not a skill I was ever able to learn, but my conversational Chinese helped me considerably, and still does. – Chris

    • Tanya says:

      A person can certainly become fluent in Mandarin. The dialects are exactly that – dialects. Different languages. Sure, regional accents can also be tricky, but the same is true of any language spoken over a wide area. English, for example. How many native English speakers can understand a full Scots accent? For that matter, an American can have trouble understanding Australian speaking in a relaxed manner. It doesn’t mean one or the other is not fluent in English.

  12. Jonathan says:

    My not-yet-three year old daughter who is growing up bilingual, I have drawn the conclusion, actually hears Chinese words differently than I do. Whatever she is experiencing when she hears a new word is different from myself when I hear a Chinese word.

    I am going to assume, for example, that I have heard the word ‘tu zi’ for rabbit more times and in more contexts than my daughter. Yet when reading a storybook to her in Chinese, I pronounced the tone wrong and she corrected me.

    I can know without a doubt that the pinyin for rabbit includes a ‘tu’ but mis-remember the tone of the word (which is the fourth), while my daughter would never, could never make such a mistake.

    I have concluded her experience of a Chinese word is simply different than mine.

    Just something for thought…

  13. Mary says:

    Thanks for this positive article, and it’s given me the incentive to try again with Arabic. I’ve been in North Africa for 20 years and haven’t managed to learn more than a little bit. But now I will try again.

  14. “Learning to speak a foreign language involves a shift in identity, a shift most people aren’t willing to make.”
    so true !

    • Nicole says:

      Indeed! After living for some time in China I experience and embraced that ‘identity shift’. How much more comfortable after that it was to function on a daily basis and connect better with Chinese friends and colleagues! My language skills snowballed after that. This ‘second language identity’ is a concept that really needs to be introduced to 2nd language learners. I had never came across that in my subsequent 2 years of formal language study. People have the choice to heed it or not and there are too many reasons to get into here as to why they won’t (I don’t want to get all negaative here), but what’s true is that it isn’t going to help one progress as much as they could.

      Of course it helps immensely to be immersed in the environment but a lot of exposure through various forms of study will be a great help too. And a language partner.

  15. Pingfa says:

    I have a niece close to 4 years old, and she’s terrible at language. She constantly calls Lemonade ‘melonaise’ despite being told a bazillion times it is lemonade.
    She sucks at walking and falls over pretty much everyday. Despite being told a bazillion times the correct way to say it, she always says ‘I falled over’ and in most cases doesn’t distinguish past and present tense.
    She also sucks at pronunciation. She’s not good with s or sh sounds, and says ‘fider’ instead of spider.
    I recall my sister was much the same, saying ‘tar’ instead of car.

    Many normal kids twice her age still suck at co-ordination and speaking. Their sentence are very broken up and still mix up simple past and present tenses like ‘runned’ instead of ‘ran’

    Kids 10 years old still have plenty of catching up to do. 10 years and they still speak, well, like children.
    So guys and girls, don’t tell me you can’t learn better than a child.

  16. […] it requires. This is similar to the argument I made in the article about adult vs. child learning (You might be too lazy to learn Chinese, but you’re not too old). Changing pronunciation habits is hard, why not do something more useful instead when people seem […]

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