ESL Teacher Talk
Children vs. Adults in the ESL Classroom
Who's going to pick up English faster - children or adults? Conventional wisdom has it that children are going to pick up the language faster (this is known as the "critical period hypothesis"). The theory is that their brains are more adaptable and that their cortex is more plastic than that of adult learners. Meanwhile, adults are already set in their ways, their brains long frozen into position (this is known as the "frozen brain hypothesis").
This thinking is reinforced by a common scenario: children forced to translate for their immigrant parents because their parent's English is so poor. Even if the parents do speak English, they typically have a heavier accent than their children.
Research has shown that the frozen brain hypothesis is a myth. Adult learners' brains are not on ice after all. In fact, studies have shown that teenagers and adults are actually more successful than children in the classroom in picking up a second language. So why does the stereotype of the "slow adult learner" persist? According to Barry McLaughlin, a Psychology Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, there are a few reasons:
- Children in general communicate on a much more basic level than adults. Their sentences are shorter and simpler. Their vocabulary is simpler. Therefore, in order to appear proficient, the bar is much lower for children than it is for adults.
- Children generally have both more incentive and more opportunity to speak English than their immigrant parents. At school, children need to interact with teachers and fellow students in English. Their parents can often shelter themselves by taking jobs that require little or no English proficiency and by surrounding themselves with friends and relatives who speak their native language.
- Children may be more adept than adults in general at losing their foreign accents, so they may come across as more fluent. Pronunciation involves patterns in the brain that become established in the brain over time. With age, it may become more difficult to change the neurological pathways forged by the learner's native tongue. However, Professor McLaughlin points out that with new technologies, such as computer-assisted learning, teachers can likely address this issue with adults and help them "do better at acquiring a native-like accent in the second language."