Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Linguistic virtuosi, prestissimo

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.


  1. I personally think learning is just a skill (like standing on your hands), like any other. Adults are seen as bad learners not because it's a magic property of the brain that deteriorates naturally over time, but because we are actively expected *not* to carry on learning when we reach adulthood (and even to *resist* learning more. What kind of a culture is that?). People, when they finish school, somehow think that the learning period is over and that whatever they do next should never involve learning at all. As a result, they step out of the learning process completely, and for years let their learning skills dull (in the same way that if you don't regularly stand on your hands, you will eventually lose that skill). And when they suddenly realise that they still have things to learn, they forgot how to do it effectively, and the myth of children as prodigy learners compared to adults is born.

    I am 34. Three years ago, I decided to teach myself Modern Greek (for holidays in Crete). With a free course and 15 min a day, I reached a basic conversational level in 3 months, a level Greek children reach in about 1½ to 2 years. 9 years ago, I had to learn Dutch due to my settling in the Netherlands. I went from near zero knowledge of the language to near fluent in 4 weeks. It was an immersive course, but then children are immersed in language as well, and yet take much more time to get to fluency.

    Does that make me a prodigy, a genius language learner? No, I just *never stopped using my learning skills*, and actually refined them over time, meaning that I am actually *better* at learning nowadays than I was when I was still in school (especially when learning languages).

    Why is it that people see learning as a magical property of young brains, when it's so obvious that it's just a skill like any other, and that if you actually train it as a skill it actually gets better over time!

  2. Christophe: I really like the way you express the myth of child learning brilliancy as a self-fulfilling prophecy, you’ve got a very good point there.
    Motivation and practice, as you say, are what keeps our natural human abilities in shape. I never understood either why languages and their learning have been singled out as belonging to a special kind of “gift”, that you necessarily lose over time. Imagine if we all stopped, well, imagining, just because we became persuaded that imagination is a child-like trait??
    Thank you so much for these thoughts!

  3. I agree. Children and adults learn languages in different ways. In our experiences as a family abroad, I was able to learn useful phrases in a new language after less than 1 hr studying, while I'd watch my children struggle with using those same "basic phrases" for months. But they were able to learn other skills that eluded me-- so I think that maybe children and adults attend to different aspects of language (ex. suprasegmentals), and require different learning experiences for acquisition.



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