What is the difference between the process of learning a language for a newborn to that of learning a foreign language for an adult?
Question is very simple. It itself suggests everything.
A newborn baby learns a language but he does not know any thing about the language...so that an adult wants to learn a foreign language about which he does not know anything....
So what is the difference between two?
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A few years ago Scientific American wrote an article on this very topic. What I remember of their findings was that language acquisition is an identical neural process for all babies, up until age 1.5 or 2. What happens after is that broad categories of different languages (African, Oriental, Caucasian) stimulate the child's brain differently, to the point where scientists could state with fair certainty the geographic location of a given child by examining a neural brain scan. There appears to be a window of neural plasticity that decreases after toddler hood; the brain becomes "hardwired" to whatever languages it has been exposed. This may explain why adults have so much difficulty attempting to learn a new language from a physical aspect. The other social aspect is that kids learning a language interact with and learn from each other as well as adults, and aren't afraid to make mistakes in expressing themselves. They take correction far easily and with no embarrassment, unlike an adult. Which factor is predominant in the rate of acquisition remains to be seen.
An excerpt from Richard II, which might be of interest, as the king banishes Mowbray from England:
452: The Language I haue learn'd these forty yeares
453: (My natiue English) now I must forgo,
454: And now my tongues vse is to me no more,
455: Then an vnstringed Vyall, or a Harpe,
456: Or like a cunning Instrument cas'd vp,
457: Or being open, put into his hands
458: That knowes no touch to tune the harmony.
459: Within my mouth you haue engaol'd my tongue,
460: Doubly percullist with my teeth and lippes,
461: And dull, vnfeeling, barren ignorance,
462: Is made my Gaoler to attend on me:
463: I am too old to fawne vpon a Nurse,
464: Too farre in yeeres to be a pupill now:
465: What is thy sentence then, but speechlesse death,
466: Which robs my tongue from breathing natiue breath?
Children are sponges. The earlier they learn anything, the quicker that learning will be and the easier it will be for them to continue building on that knowledge provided the opportunity is given. This is why I am a supporter of foreign language for preschool up to high school students. It will be the best thing for our kiddos to be bi- and multi-lingual for the future of our country. This knowledge also opens up so many doors for the financial and career outlook for our kids. Latin, Spanish, and the Asian languages will be most beneficial.
Adults also tend to learn a language using both auditory and visual cues; ie, they read the foreign language when they are first learning. This may not be the best way, especially considering the research findings about the brain being set in pathways after the age of 2 or so (as one of the above posters cited.) I studied Russian for 4 years in high school, and two in college. My high school teacher used a method that imitated how infants learn language. For the first 2-3 months, we saw no written version of Russian, but heard and spoke a lot of basic Russian. The Cyrillic alphabet was then much easier to learn, as the letters matched sounds we were used to making. This seemed a pretty effective way to learn, as I have retained a lot of Russian, even though I have very few opportunities to practice using it.
There is a language learning ability in young children that switches off at about 8 years old. It is not currently well understood but it has awesome power. It takes an adult intense thought and study to do something a child does effortlessly. THE book on this subject is 'The Blank Slate' by Stephen Pinker. Here is a very stunning example of children's language learning skills.
In the 1970s in Latin America a deaf school opened and the local deaf children were taught formal sign language for the first time (sign language has all the ordinary structure of a 'normal' languge) This example concerns two deaf teenagers who attended the school and tried to learn to sign. Because they were older than the special age for learning language, they never really learned it properly and their language skills were full of grammar errors. But these two teenagers fell in love and eventually, years later, had a child. This child was also deaf.
Get this... the child was raised by two people who 'spoke' a fractured language. This infant deconstructed their mistakes and correctly assimilated the rules of the language - perfectly. Language assimilation is one thing, language deconstruction and correction is completely different. That kind of post-graduate language analysis is normally performed by very skilled professors in specialist departments. This kid did it while in nappies.
I find it amazing how small children and infant are able to learn automatically any language spoken by people around them. Infants also have an amazing ability to read body language. Form the expression on faces of people looking at them they are able to make out if a person is happy or angry.
IN comparison adults may spend years in a foreign language ans still not learn speaking that language. What gives children this tremendous capacity to learn new language. There are several factors, and I will list them as they occur to me.
- Children have basically better capacity to learn any thing. To some extent this better learning ability is because their minds are cluttered up wit less information as compared adults.
- Children make more efforts to learn a new language. Adults may not have that much time or energy for learning languages. Also adults are discouraged from speaking new language for fear of making mistakes and thus making a fool of themselves. Children have no such inhibitions.
- Children have a greater need to learn languages. They have many other alternate means of making themselves understood.
- Children learn languages by the best method of learning language - by speaking. In contrast the adults usually go through the painful route of learning things like alphabets and grammar.
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