We all know that children are outstanding learners, and especially outstanding at learning languages. But how do we know this? Who told us, or how else did we find this out?
Let’s see. Children are, apparently, champion sprinters. Whatever they learn, they learn very fast, and their linguistic galloping prowess is in a class of its own. Words fail us: child language acquisition is a feat, it’s staggering, it’s magic – these are not my words, by the way. Our tiny Formula One racers acquire language at astounding, breakneck, breathtaking speed – not my words here either.
I’ve often wondered why these words appear in the same statements that say that all children acquire language in the same way, at the same pace, with the same results. The “speed of acquisition” of language has nevertheless become one of many unquestionable truths about children and their learning. But how can something that we all do be wondrous? Compared to what, since we can’t be comparing children among themselves?
Geoffrey Sampson prefers to question the unquestionable: why, he asks, “is it appropriate to regard a learning period of two years or so as ‘remarkably fast’ rather than ‘remarkably slow’? [...] The truth is that the only reason we have for expecting language acquisition to take any particular length of time is our knowledge of how long it actually has taken in observed cases”. Adults, he adds, tend to be favourably disposed towards small children, so a verdict of slowness, or of indifference, against one of speed, would make one seem “boorish”. Sampson concludes that children “are good at learning languages, because people are good at learning anything that life throws at us”. You can read the whole argument in his 2005 book, The ‘language instinct’ debate.
It turns out that children are outstanding language learners because adults aren’t. This comparison deftly glosses over the fact that we’re talking about versions of language learning that cannot be compared. The reasoning is that children are good and fast because adults are bad and slow. Or that adults are bad and slow because children are good and fast. If, that is, this can be called a “reasoning” at all. Where children are taken as ideals of linguistic perfection, it is perhaps understandable that adults can do little more than remain spellbound – and tongue-tied.
The intellectual marvels that we go on crediting our children with might also explain, perhaps expectedly, another development. This is the quite frightening one that Susan Linn documents in Consuming Kids. Soon, on the perception of “many languages” as the latest desirable gadget, children themselves may start demanding to be made multilinguals.
If they do, they may be in for an unpleasant surprise as soon as they start school, where multilingualism appears to matter less than commitment to a “mother tongue” (one only, yes). We’ll see how, in the next two posts.
© MCF 2010
Next post: Mother tongues. Saturday 11th December 2010.