It is widely believed that children are better language learners than adults, but does this really hold up under scientific inquiry? The following results may surprise you:
Linguists at the University of Haifa, Israel tested the ability of groups of 8-year-olds, 12-year-olds, and adults to infer a new, made-up language rule after hearing several examples. Adults consistently performed better than children on every measure, whether in their ability to learn the new rule, how long they remembered it, or in their pronunciation of the made-up language.
Of course, children never fail to learn their native language, while the story of adult language learning is riddled with failures. It’s understandable that most people observe this and conclude that children are naturally more gifted language learners. However, this falsely assumes that adults and children use comparable methods.
In their first years of life, children spend literally thousands of hours immersed in their target language before they even utter their first sentence. When they do start speaking, they learn by imitation, repetition, and especially by making thousands of errors. Furthermore, for children, language learning isn’t ever a choice; it’s a matter of survival. Adults, on the other hand, typically have much less invested in their language learning, and suffer much lighter consequences for giving up. The amount of time adults usually invest is correspondingly negligible.
Successful adult language learners
The immersive language school at Middlebury College in Vermont is an example of what happens when adults try learning the same way as children. Students at Middlebury sign a pledge on their first day promising to speak nothing but their target language for the next three months, 24 hours a day. Indeed, adults who learn at Middlebury college often reach fluency in a matter of months, not years. In other words, they leave children in the dust.
- 通常只是旁觀沒有參與，看電視、聽播客、看書、或 YouTube 頻道、上課…都只是”旁觀”，並沒有開口、也沒有互動，看很多而沒有用出來，只是形成一團模糊的觀念卡在腦子裡。
Why is it, then, that so many adult language learners fail? In our experience, the main reasons are twofold:
- Maintaining emotional distance from the language, forgetting that language is primarily a way to express yourself: your experience, emotions, and your desires.
- Learning passively instead of actually immersing yourself in the language. For example, reading books, watching TV or YouTube channels, and attending cram schools are all passive learning methods: they may help, but they aren’t sufficient.
In our Natural English Acquisition class, we use humorous but realistic teaching materials in a safe, encouraging environment to help students overcome their fear of mistakes, giving students plenty of opportunities to use the language in interaction with native speakers. You can see examples of our teaching material and in-class practice below.