Last week I started a series of posts about how language schools use confusion marketing and common myths on language learning to sell their courses. In the first part of the series, I talked about the myth of “new” and “innovative” methodology that some companies advertise as the unique feature that will make people fluent in English in no time. Today we’re having a look at another widespread idea about language learning:
MYTH 2: THE EARLIER IN LIFE YOU START LEARNING ENGLISH, THE FASTER YOU WILL ACQUIRE IT AND THE BETTER YOU WILL SPEAK IT
This idea is used in two different ways: by some language schools, which want you to enrol your baby as early as possible in their courses; and by adult learners, as an excuse for their not so good performance in class and homework. Before I tell you what’s wrong with this myth, though, let’s see what actually happens.
The age factor in language learning
While there’s some truth in the claim that young children learn language faster and better, it’s not as simple as many people believe. The first problem seems to be that there’s a tendency to mix up how the acquisition of our first language (or our mother tongue) works, and how the learning of a subsequent, non-native language (i.e. second or foreign or additional language) does. Science is fairly certain that those are two very different processes. We don’t get to speak our first language by taking lessons and doing homework. When we first go to school, we are already fluent in our mother tongue. It’s still sort of a mysterious process, which starts even before we’re born, when our hearing is turned on.
There are various views on how child development and first language acquisition happen, but a key idea here is the so-called critical period hypothesis, which says that there’s a period of growth in which people are able to develop full native competence in a language. That period would span from birth to the early teenage years, and any attempt to learn a language after that would result in a non-native competence and, therefore, not a mother tongue, but a second language.
Of course, my explanations are far too oversimplified, but I’m making an effort not to go too technical. If you’re interested in this topic, google terms and names such as “neuroplasticity”, “Penfield”, “Lenneberg”, “Chomsky”, and “universal grammar”. While there seems to be some truth in the claims of the critical period hypothesis, particularly in that children (very young children) appear to be able to acquire skills more easily than full-grown adults, there’s still a lot to be explained. And while the scientific questions are not resolved, companies take advantage of some of the most appealing claims and use them to persuade potential clients.
Start studying English at age 3 and become fluent before turning 10? Nope.
If it’s true that young children’s brain is fresh enough to absorb languages in a way that they can become native speakers, then you should hurry and enrol your baby in the nearest English language school as soon as possible and spare her the trouble of years and years of different language schools when she’s older. Get your baby to learn English at age 3, and by the time she’s 10, she’ll be as native in it as she is in her parents’ language. Right?
WRONG! If only it was that simple!
The age factor is just one among a variety of factors influencing language learning, all of which acting at the same time. What kind of learning environment is your kid going to be exposed to? Remember what I said earlier: we don’t acquire our first language by having lessons. It’s a much more subtle process, and also a great deal deeper. Maybe the setting most likely to yield good results would be the immersion one, but it’s almost impossible to provide kids with a verisimilar immersion setting where the target language isn’t really spoken outside the school and/or if parents don’t speak it well enough or don’t demand their children to use it when talking to them. It’s just too complicated to replicate a scenario that would feel natural enough for the second language to be acquired as a native language by the children.
And there are a lot more factors, such as motivation (why bother to learn and use a language if everyone I need to communicate with understands my native Portuguese?), amount of exposure (are 4 hours a week of school instrution + my favourite English-language cartoon really enough to make me pick up English like a native?), cognitive issues (what if I’m terrific at maths but can’t get my head round grammar?), affective issues (what if I don’t like it when they make me speak that language that isn’t from home) etc.
What many language schools do is reinforce a belief very common among adults, especially those who haven’t studied a second language. It goes more or less like this: “I was told it takes about 6 years to learn English, so if I enrol my kid when he’s 4, he’ll be fluent by the time he turns 10, right?”
The level of fluency parents expect when they think about this is something like the native speakers in the TV series they watch in the evening. I’m sorry, it’s not going to happen. It turns out that in foreign language learning environments, such as English language learning in Brazil, the critical period vanishes really, really early. Whether your kid starts going to language school when he’s 4 or 10 is going to make very little difference in his overall language proficiency, simply because adult-like fluency is developed in adulthood. In other words, when you’re learning a foreign language, you can only get to a high level of fluency if you’re able to think and reason about language, that is, if you’re able to go abstract. Kids aren’t good at this.
I won’t learn English because I’m too old
“Poor me, I’m an unfortunate adult that can’t learn English properly. I’ve tried several times, gone to different schools, tried lots of apps, but I can’t make sense of the language. I should’ve started learning when I was 5. Now it’s too late!”
My piece of advice to you: cut the bloody bullsh*t!
In the great majority of the cases, adults find themselves stuck in situations like the one above not because some kind of developmental blockade or a closed door in the elusive critical period, but simply because they fail to work harder on their aims. The only critical thing here is their laziness or demotivation. But since this topic is too much fun, I’ll save it for a future post.
Not everything’s lost, though
I don’t mean to discourage you to enrol your young child in a foreign language school. On the contrary, I actually think you should definitely do it. My intention with this post was just to help you adjust your expectations. Learning English between ages 3 and 11 should be primarily about having fun and getting familiar with the language. It should be a period to create a good impression about how fun and interesting it can be to speak another language. Don’t try your kid by asking him to translate things or say certain phrases if you’re not sure he’s able to do it. Don’t take him to Disney World and expect him to be your interpreter. Don’t expect that he’ll be a prodigy learner and become fluent in English before finishing elementary school. Your main investment in this phase of your kid’s life is in the improvement and maintenance of his motivation. If you understand this, perhaps your child may even surprise you after a couple of years of language study.
Next week, in the third part of this series of posts about learning English as a foreign language, we’re going to discuss the third and last myth I chose to clarify: the native-speaker teacher as the best option.
See you then.