Before getting started with the differences between kids and adults, I’d like to make sure you understand that the process, the principles and the functioning of the language mechanism in our brain are exactly the same, so we’re talking here about differences that are determined by the circumstances.
I’ve already said many times that if we follow the same principles and trust the process by which we all acquired our native languages, the true acquisition of the language is going to happen sooner or later, regardless of our age.
With that being said, let’s get started with those differences that make the process work every single time for kids but, unfortunately, are not as successful with adults.
1. THE TRADITIONAL GRAMMAR APPROACH IN ADULTS
I obviously had to include the unfortunately famous among adults traditional grammar approach as one of the main differences with kids.
Like I just said, the success of the process only depends on following the same principles by which we all acquired our native languages. However, at some point in history we adults started to believe that the process is different with us.
We started to learn languages consciously, to study their grammar rules also consciously, to memorize vocabulary lists… We also started to reverse the law of causation and to believe that our output is the cause of our improvement, when the example of kids and their native language shows us otherwise, it shows us that output is just a consequence of the improvement we’ve experienced through comprehensible input.
We also started to correct mistakes consciously all the time, thinking that it was actually helping us out, when it’s exactly the opposite.
So we can pretty much sum it up by saying that we started doing things the other way around and expected to get the same results. I believe this is just madness.
This is the main difference between kids and adults, and it makes the latter suffer so much in order to truly learn their target languages. If we understand this and trust the same principles by which we all acquired our native language, the process is going to be successful.
2. WE ADULTS ARE “IN A HURRY” TO START SPEAKING
I’ve also mentioned a couple of times that the main cause of frustration when adults are learning a second language is the fact that they can’t speak the way they’d like to in any given moment.
I perfectly understand the fact that we want to be able to start speaking as soon as possible because our ultimate goal is to be able to communicate with people from other countries in a foreign language.
However, this is where the difference between kids and adults shows up. Because of their lack of consciousness, kids don’t worry about not being able to speak. They don’t get frustrated like we do, they just start speaking when they’re ready.
On the other side, we adults try to force output from day 1, and that leads us to frustration because the process just doesn’t work like that and our ability to speak is a consequence of having improved through comprehensible input, and not the other way around.
As with every other problem, this comes from the traditional grammar approach. Because we’ve been told to believe that output is the cause of our improvement, we try to force it hoping that it’s going to help us keep improving. But this just doesn’t happen and it leads us to frustration as I said.
With all this, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to speak or that you should wait more than a year like kids to say your first words; all I want is for you to understand how the process actually works and not to get frustrated when you’re not able to speak the way you’d like to in a given moment. The process simply works like that. Pay attention to the fact that our ability to understand is always way ahead of our ability to speak.
Like I said, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying to speak, I just want you to understand that your output is actually a consequence and not a cause, and the fact that there’s no direct improvement when you speak. I’ve already mentioned several times the fact that you do improve indirectly when speaking, because every time you talk with someone, you’re going to get a response and that’s going to give you a lot of comprehensible input.
So to sum it all up, speak as much as you want, but please understand that the process doesn’t work the way we were told and the fact that is actually normal not to be able to speak the way you’d like to in a given moment. I’m convinced that this is the main cause of frustration in language students, and I want to do my best to help you let it go.
3. THE EXPOSURE TIME
The exposure time is also one of the greatest differences between kids and adults. Kids have access to comprehensible input pretty much 24/7 (it is comprehensible because of their parents’ effort through simple language, gestures, toys...), while we adults normally just settle for a couple of hours of weekly instruction.
Even if these classes are based on the right principles and the students are actually acquiring the language, the difference in the exposure time is simply too large. At the end of the day, we need to listen to multiple repetitions of certain words, chunks or sentences in context to be able to acquire them, so exposure time is absolutely essential. Obviously, input must be comprehensible, this is still key.
This is why I wrote the free eBook “The World of Languages”, to provide ideas, keys, resources and habits broken down into different levels in order to increase our exposure time and to keep improving on our own outside of the classroom through interesting and pleasant activities. It’s also important to keep this last part in mind at all times, because if we find what we’re doing boring or tough, sooner or later we’ll just give up.
If we can combine those language classes based on the right principles with all these interesting and pleasant activities, we’ll be majorly increasing the exposure time and thus speeding up the process. Later on, there’ll even come a moment in which we won’t need language classes any more and we’ll be able to keep working on our own my making use of the real world (conversations, language exchanges, series, movies, books...), the greatest and most complete source of comprehensible input there is.
This is then a really significant difference between kids and adults, but if we work on increasing our exposure time, we’ll be speeding up the process (as long as the input is comprehensible, of course). It’s not the same to just attend language classes for 2 hours a week, than to also include the habit of reading books, watching documentaries… for an hour a day. That way, we’d be increasing our exposure time from 2 to 9 hours a week, which makes a huge difference. And like I’ve said many times before, we’re talking about interesting and pleasant activities that, in most cases, we already carry out in our daily life in our own native language, so there’s absolutely no effort involved in it.
4. CONSCIOUS LEARNING
I’ve already included this in the first point, but I believe it’s important to mention it again because we’re talking about a key concept.
Obviously because of the traditional grammar approach, we adults keep trying to learn languages consciously, which means through the conscious study of their grammar rules, the memorization of words and expressions… Not only does this take us nowhere, but it also ruins anybody’s motivation. I believe we can all relate to it.
Because of their lack of consciousness once again, but kids acquire their native languages subconsciously by associating certain words, phrases, expressions… to their meaning. To put it in a simple way, kids improve when they understand what is being said to them. This is how the process works, as simple as that.
Through getting comprehensible input, we process the language in our brains and build a mental representation of it until we reach a point in which we’re ready to start speaking naturally and spontaneously.
To put it in a simple way once again, the idea is to associate “pájaro” with the idea or the mental representation of a bird, and not with its English translation “bird”. And not just with isolated words, but also with sentences, structures and the language in general.
On the other side, any approach that is based on our conscious memory is bound to fail, and unfortunately this is one of the cornerstones of the traditional grammar approach.
5. THE CONTEXT
Every piece of information kids get has a context, which means that it’s always framed into a story and has communication as its main goal. Let’s not forget communication is really the most important thing and not form (grammar, specific endings, conjugation...).
Thanks to “our friend” the traditional grammar approach once again, we adults have grown accustomed to doing activities with no context whatsoever and exercises that focus on isolated parts of the language.
However, the context is just essential, because it helps us understand what many words, phrases or expressions that we didn’t know before mean, and ultimately associate those with their mental representation, which is key for the language acquisition process.
I believe that, one way or another, the whole language learning process should be based on stories with context whose main goal is communication, because this is nothing but the way real life works. When me meet someone, we tell them our life story and they tell us theirs; we tell a story when we explain a past event; we create a story when we’re talking about a future event; and the list goes on and on.
I truly hope you’ve enjoyed this article and it’s helped you realize that once we focus our process on the same principles by which we all acquired our native language, the result is going to be successful and true language acquisition will definitely come about.
Thanks so much for reading it and don’t hesitate to leave me your comments, questions, suggestions… below.