Children vs Adults in Second-Language Acquisition

Posting by Ade Tuty Anggriany | 5:00 PM

1. A Common Belief
Most people believe that children are better than adults when attempting to learn a second language. Factors involved in second-language acquisition can be divided into two kinds, the psychological and the social. Intellectual processing which is involved in the determination of grammatical structures and rules, memory which is essential for learning to occur, and motor skills which involve the use of articulators of speech, are the psychological factors that should be considered. While the type of situations, settings and interactions which affect our ability to learn a second language, in particular the natural and classroom situations, are the social factors that should be considered.

2. Psychological Factors Affecting Second-Language Learning
a. Intellectual processing

There are two ways to learn the structure and rules of a second language: someone can explain them to you or you can figure them out for yourself. The first way may be termed ’explication’, the second ‘induction’.
Explication is the process whereby the rules and the structures of a second language are explained to the learner in his or her native language. No second language can be learned entirely by such means. Explication may even be a faster means of learning than induction, since induction requires that a learner be repeatedly exposed to words, phrases and sentences along with relevant situation that give some induction as to their meaning.
Learning by self discovery is the essence of the process of induction. The child who is exposed to second language speech and remembers what he or she has heard will be able to analyze and discover the generalization or rule that underlies the speech. Negation and the plural are learned by induction and become part of a young native speaker’s language knowledge quite early long before the child enters school.
b. Memory
Memory is crucial to learning. It is conceivable that a person with severe memory impairment could ever learn his or her native language, much less a second language. The learning of the simplest word requires memory. Memory is similarly crucial for the learning of grammatical structures and rules. It is only through memory that a child can accumulate the vast amount of speech and relevant situational data which serve as a basis for analyzing structures and formulating rules, processes which constitutes induction.
The kind of simple memorization where words, phrases and sentences are remembered just as they are is called ‘rote’ memorization by psycholinguist. While children at age 5 or 6 still display a phenomenal ability at rote memorization, it seems that older children do not, with some decline beginning around 8 years of age and with more of a decline from about 12 years of age. It seems that children’s age can be divided into two categories under 7 years and 7 to 12 years. By 50, for example there appears to be decrease of about 20 per cent in the number of the brain cells in the cortex; by 75 years of age that loss will have reached approximately 40 per cent. In the normally aging brain, long term memories seem relatively unaffected; with one’s knowledge of the world, built up over decades, remaining intact. On the other hand the ability to deal successfully with material such as list of new names and words is affected.
c. Motor skills
Good pronunciation, which is related to the ability to control the organs of speech, is clearly essential part of learning a foreign language. Jaws, lips, tongue; vocal chords are controlled by muscles, all of which are under the general control the brain. The particular motor skill of speech pronunciation is best developed at a younger age. Somewhere around the age of 10 and 12 years the ability to acquire new motor skills begins to decline. Children learning a second language typically learn to speak it with a pronunciation that is indistinguishable from that of native speaker. Children under the age of 7 years are rated ‘high’ on all psychological factors except ‘explicative’ processing, while, adults are rated ‘high’ on ‘inductive’ and ‘explicative’ processing but ‘low’ on ‘memory’ and ‘motor skills’.

3. Social Situations Affecting Second-Language Learning
a. The natural situation
A natural situation for second-language learning is one where the second language is experienced in a situation that is similar to that in which the native language is learned. Speaking as one gets older there is a decline in the kind of social interactions which promotes language learning. For adults, social interaction mainly occurs through the medium of language. Few native speakers’ adults are willing to devote time to interacting with someone who does not speak the language. The adult foreigner will have little opportunity to engage in meaningful language exchange except for picking up bits of language that are experienced in the workplace or in shopping. The older the child, the greater the role that language p[lays in social interaction and the more the person will experience difficult in being accepted.
b. The classroom situation
The classroom for second language learning is planned, or some might say, an artificially constructed, situation. In the natural situation, language is but one aspect of life, an aspect which accompanies other life events. In the classroom language it becomes the prime aspect of life around which all else revolves. There are characteristic of the planned classroom which distinguishes it from the natural situation. They are include social adjustment to group process, the need to attend class in order to learn, the need for long periods of concentration and having to do home study. Young children will do quite poor in comparison to older children and adults.

4. Who is better?
a. The natural situation
In the natural situation, younger children will do best. Natural situation is more favorable to children because adults undergo a marked decline in the quality and the quantity of the social interaction conductive to good language learning. In a natural situation, the social activities of children especially young children expose them to massive amounts of good, natural language. It will be easier for children to learn syntax than it will be for adults. Because adults undergo decline in memory and without remembered data there nothing to analyze.
Younger children will have an advantage of over adults in learning the grammar of second language. Older children can be expected to learn faster than adults because of a better memory. Children posse the flexibility in motor skills which adults do not have, children will do much better in acquiring native pronunciation in a second language. It can be conclude that in all respects of language learning, for the natural situation children will do better than adults with younger children doing better than older children.

b. The classroom situation
In the classroom situation adults will do better than young children because they know how to be students. They have sufficient maturity to meet the rigours of a formal learning environment, where concentration, attention and even the ability to sit still for a long time, all play a role in learning. The best age to learn a second language in a classroom situation is probably that age where the individual retains much of the memory and motor skills of the very young. But where the individual has begun to reason and understand like an adult. That age would probably be somewhere around 12 years.

5. Critical Age
It is safe to affirm the view that there is no critical age in terms of acquiring the syntax of a second language. One psycholinguist, Thomas Scovel claimed that no adult can ever be successful in that regard. The critical period for accent less speech simply means that adults will never learn to pass themselves off as native speakers phonologically.

2 Comment
  1. Anonymous June 6, 2011 at 5:59 PM  


  2. Anonymous December 15, 2011 at 9:35 AM