Starting young: Learning a second language
Kickstart School in The Hague specialises in English and Dutch courses in a supportive and challenging learning environment, ranging from beginners to advanced levels.
In any language classroom, it’s not uncommon to hear adults lamenting that they should have started sooner, or how they wish they had been exposed to a second language in their formative years.
This feeling of anguish seems to stem from the belief that as a child you learn languages more easily than you do when you are older. We all know what they say about old dogs and new tricks.
According to renowned linguist Noam Chomsky, “Young children have a much richer capacity to develop and acquire many languages simultaneously than adults have”. But why is this?
Conscious vs. unconscious learning
For years, the idea that children are better language-learners has been based on the belief that as young children are already undergoing a period of physical and mental development, it is easier for them to incorporate yet another skill into this process - whether they are aware of it or not.
It remains a hotly debated issue, but numerous researchers suggest there is a critical period for acquiring not only one’s first language, but for a second language as well. Learning a language during this time is thought to be the best way to speak a language proficiently and naturally.
Whilst the cut-off age for this critical period varies from study to study, some as early as 7 or as late as 18, they all suggest that children’s brains are more receptive to language acquisition at a young age.
First language interference
Children, very young children in particular, do not have the same foundation of grammar and vocabulary as an adult learner, because they are still in the process of learning their first language.
Some argue this may be a disadvantage, but it also means that children are less likely to search for a comparable word or structure in their mother tongue. This encourages learning the meaning of a word in its own context - rather than simply translating the word from their first language to their second in their head.
Although as adults we might have the desire to learn another language, we also have a myriad of other commitments in our day-to-day lives. Often, when an adult decides to learn another language it is because they need to, perhaps for a move abroad, as an employment requirement, or to pass an exam. Children, on the other hand, have the opportunity to pick these things up in their own time, without the same external pressures or deadlines.
What’s more, children have the opportunity to learn through play. When children play, they develop their communicative and social skills. Playing exposes a child to new experiences, but also problems to solve. When children do not share a common language, their desire to play encourages them to adapt and learn new things in order to be included.
Anyone who has ever said something they shouldn’t have, and had it parroted back to them obliviously by a small child knows that children are excellent mimics. This works to their advantage when it comes to mastering the pronunciation of a foreign language.
Numerous arguments favour the idea that children are much more adept at hearing and reproducing the intricate sounds of a foreign language, and are more likely to speak a second language without an obvious accent when exposed from an early age.
The way a child’s language level is assessed is inherently different to the way adults are assessed. Naturally, a child is not expected to have mastered the same range of vocabulary and complex grammatical structures as a teenager or adult. What they’ve learned need only reflect the kind of language they use in their mother tongue at that age. One wouldn’t expect a six-year-old to express themselves eloquently in their first language, let alone a second.
As is the case with adults, different children learn in different ways. It is important to remember this; even though you may agree that children are naturally better at learning languages, this does not mean that "All children learn languages easily". Everyone has their own special talents and interests; some people have an aptitude for numbers, whilst others are more artistically or linguistically inclined.
There are a number of factors to consider when it comes to children and languages. Rather than reducing it down to a simple statement, "Children are better at learning languages", perhaps it is more reasonable to say that given the right tools and support, children have the capability to flourish in language learning.
Katherine Edmonds works at Kickstart School in The Hague, which offers Dutch and English language training for motivated people wishing to achieve tangible results.