Language learning debunked

As children, learning our first language seemed easy but learning a second or third language is certainly no walk in the park. Myths and misconceptions can hold most adults back or discourage them from continuing their language-learning journey. We did our research to disprove three of these myths in the hopes of giving learners a confidence boost. By having the facts straight, achieving success in language learning is highly possible. Good luck!
 

Myth #1: Children are better language learners than adults.

Studies reveal that an early start gives a child a longer time period for learning and a greater potential for communicative proficiency. However, The Telegraph points out that adults can be just as strong, if not stronger, than children when it comes to foreign-language learning due to three main reasons.

Firstly, adults have a pre-existing knowledge of language and a deeper understanding of how language works. Compared to younger learners whose skills are still developing, older learners are familiar with grammar rules and conjugation, making them better at understanding patterns and applying language rules.

In addition, younger and older learners’ skills are measured differently. Children use smaller vocabularies and simpler syntax so their fluency standards are lower. For adults, communication is more complex and, to be considered fluent, they need to learn a wider range of vocabularies and nuances for different situations and topics. Adults also face greater expectations while having more inhibitions, unlike children.

Lastly, kids have a more organized curriculum and sometimes more competent teachers in school than most adults who are independently learning a second language. Without proper support or constant practice, adults’ study could become unstructured or unfocused.
 

Myth #2: When learning a second language, learners should limit using their mother tongue.

For young learners, the most prevalent misconception is that children would mix up the two languages if they are exposed to both of them at the same time. But researchers found that babies can distinguish between different languages from the very first days of infancy.

When children use or mix both languages, it is a sign that they are using a second communication tool when unable to express their needs more effectively. They also know when to switch between languages and use each one when appropriate. Psychological Science also argues that exposure to multiple languages helps children develop more effective communication skills.

Similarly, using their mother tongue while learning a second language doesn’t have negative effects. Speech-language pathologist Ana Mumy adds that children with strong first-language skills are more ready and able to learn a second language. In reality, learning the linguistic structures and rules of a second language is similar to how the first language developed, although it takes more time and support.
 

Myth #3: Learning technical grammar is a prerequisite to master a language.

Children acquire language at an early age without first learning the technical parts. Based on Stephen Krashen’s theory, language acquisition does not require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules, but requires meaningful interaction and natural communication that conveys the message.

Younger learners are exposed to the language at home or in school, and acquire words and expressions based on how they communicate with people around them. Lingholic explains that grammar only makes sense if the learner has been exposed to the language for a considerable length of time. Learners need to encounter a word between 5 to 16 times to retain it, and repeated exposure increases the chance of remembering words. Krashen emphasises that conscious “learning” is the product of formal instruction that results in conscious knowledge about the language, such as the knowledge of grammar rules. But making grammar a priority at the start may impede language acquisition.

Learning a language is a rewarding, albeit challenging, experience. Don’t let any of these myths demotivate you and get in the way of you becoming a multilingual. Read about our Hall of fame translators and be inspired by their language learning stories!

CATEGORIES /

Jenie Gabriel

The author

Jenie Gabriel

Jenie creates and coordinates content for Gengo's marketing team. Originally from the Philippines, she was an advertising creative in Singapore before moving to Tokyo. In her spare time, you’ll find her wandering around the city or planning her next escapade.

  • peanut butter

    I agree with the debunking of the second and third myths, and only technically with the first. How do you define a “better learner”? Learning a second language in childhood is, in ways that you describe and in other ways, qualitatively different from learning a language at a later stage. Young children have such plastic nervous systems that they readily absorb all aspects of language. If, however, such a child is removed from the environment and usage of a language, readiness and ability to speak that language deteriorate quickly. An adult has the converse problem. Learning the language by imitation is more difficult and is usually approached more analytically, leading in excessive instances to the third myth. But insofar as an adult acquires practical knowledge of a second language, the less plastic nervous system retains it better. The idea of having students learn a new language during adolescence makes a lot of sense, because the nervous system is still plastic enough to make thorough acquisition realistic, and if that language can be used for a few years, the nervous system has hardened enough in the meantime that retention is better even if the speaker takes a pretty long vacation from using that language.

    • Thank you for your insight, peanut butter! Actually, depending on how you look at it, I do agree with you – the way children immersed in a second language environment and adults studying a new language learn is completely different. My take on what the article says is not that by debunking the idea that “children are better learners” the opposite (adults are better learners) becomes automatically true, but rather that debunking this idea would mean that, with the right approach, adults can learn a language just as well as children would (though it may involve a different process.)
      That said, my own daughters (4 and 2 years old at the moment) understand 4 languages, and I am amazed at how well they compartmentalize them! English and Spanish at home, and French and Arabic in school – sometimes they sing a French song they learned at school at home, but they absolutely never speak Arabic at home! Not even if me or my husband try to get them going (they just look at us funny.)

    • Jenie Gabriel

      Hi there, thanks for your comment! You made some good points and I like what you said about kids’ plastic or elastic nervous systems. I do agree that they are like sponges. I also found that kids are better at mimicking new sounds and adopting pronunciation. And I agree that it’s better to learn a 2nd language during adolescence, when learners are more receptive and when they’ve been exposed to the language long enough.

      In the first myth, I meant to differentiate “acquiring” or absorbing language and “learning” it consciously by studying grammar rules, etc. Hence, adults may not always be able to acquire language like a child, but they could be better learners due to their stronger motivation, conscious efforts and deliberate exposure to the language.

      • Lara Fernández

        ^^^ YES! :)

    • Lara Fernández

      Thank you for your insight, peanut butter! Actually, depending on how you look at it, I do agree with you – the way children immersed in a second language environment and adults studying a new language learn is completely different. My take on what the article says is not that by debunking the idea that “children are better learners” the opposite (adults are better learners) becomes automatically true, but rather that debunking this idea would mean that, with the right approach, adults can learn a language just as well as children would (though it may involve a different process.)
      That said, my own daughters (4 and 2 years old at the moment) understand 4 languages, and I am amazed at how well they compartmentalize them! English and Spanish at home, and French and Arabic in school – sometimes they sing a French song they learned at school at home, but they absolutely never speak Arabic at home! Not even if me or my husband try to get them going (they just look at us funny.)


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