Monday, October 04, 2010

Learning a Second Language as an Adult - Thoughts Inspired by Dr. Patricia Kuhl at UAA

[I have a few unfinished posts that needed more thinking and editing before posting.  This one was in that pile.  I've done a little more work on it and I think I better post it before I forget about it altogether.]

Here's what the UAA website said about the talk we went to at the end of August.  
Dr. Patricia Kuhl is a renowned expert on early learning. She will give a free public lecture in the Wendy Williamson Auditorium on Monday, Aug. 23, at 7:30 p.m. titled “How Infants Crack the Speech Code:  Exploring Minds in the Making Using the Tools of Modern Neuroscience.” 
Dr. Kuhl is doing research on how babies acquire language by testing kids and their performance on tests of sound recognition and brain scans.  I want to focus on some things she said about the difference between infant language learning and adult language learning which I have experiential knowledge of both as an adult language learner and through teaching English in Thailand.  I talked to her briefly after the talk and want to follow up with an email, so partly this is to get my thoughts down.  You can see her specific research here.

Several times she contrasted infant and adult language learning and had data to demonstrate it.  Basically, language learning ability was high to about 7 years old and then nose dives according to her graph.  There were interesting data about infants getting maybe 15-20 hours of interaction with a very expressive Mandarin speaker and then showing that they can recognize unique Mandarin sounds that other American kids the same age can't recognize.  Even more interesting, she showed that kids who did the same amount of Mandarin, but on television instead of with a live person, had no benefit.  So social interaction, she believes, is very important in language learning.

But I had a bunch of questions based on my own experiences learning German and Thai as an adult, as well as playing with Cantonese and Mandarin with less intensity.  Some questions arose:
  1.  When comparing child and adult language acquisition, were the adults learning the way children do - in a total immersion program where their old language wasn't allowed?  My experiences are that the immersion - a year as a college student in Germany taking classes in German and having to do the papers and discussion in German as well as doing everything on the side in German, and a similar situation in Thailand - meant that such immersion makes all the difference in getting to a fluency level where you speak the other language without thinking and you dream in the other language.

    I asked her this afterward and she said, "No" when adult language learning is compared to that of kids, the adults aren't usually in a learning situation comparable to a child learning a first language.  They are in classes not in an immersion situation.

  2. What exactly do you mean by learning a language?  Most of the testing she discussed had to do with acquisition of sounds that don't exist in your native language.   So, if you are talking about learning to speak a language accent free, then my personal experience supports that adults can't do this as well as kids can.  But if you are talking about learning how to speak the language at native speaker levels of vocabulary and grammar, I know way too many people who learned English as adults who speak fluently, if not accent free.

I got reasonably fluent after a year in Germany.  I had had two years of high school German and one year of college German before I went to Germany.  While my parents were native German speakers, I did not grow up learning German at home.  And my pronunciation didn't suggest any benefit from hearing it as a child.   But, after a year in Germany, I had a basic ability to speak without thinking - that is without translating from English, just naturally responding to what others said to me.  What I needed still was to grow my vocabulary and improve my grammar.  If I had stayed in Germany for three or four more years, I'm sure my German would have gotten significantly better.  I also think of African students I met in Beijing who came to China with no Chinese and were then good enough to take college classes in a couple of years.  

So, why do most Americans think that learning a second language as an adult is so much more difficult

It's a good excuse for why they don't know a second language.  But that's not really fair, because the idea permeates the US.   Also, English is the main universal language in the world today.  Even if one travels, one can get by with English in most places. 

I think adults appear to be poor at learning second languages for a number of reasons:
  1. Adults don't learn languages in immersion situations where they have no choice but to speak the new language.
  2. Adults don't have doting parents giving them lots of attention and praise every time they utter a new word. 
  3. Adult language classes focus on learning through logic and rules instead of speaking and mimicking native speakers. My Thai and Chinese students (in those countries) could read and write much better than they could speak.  Speaking happens in a different part of the brain and their classes all focused on reading and writing, not on speaking.  (Often because the teachers couldn't speak English fluently either.)
  4. Many adults don't want to look foolish, so they don't say anything.

I think the key issue is how we're taught languages.  I studied Spanish in junior high school and high school and German in high school.  It was pretty much focused on reading and writing with limited spoken language in class.  The Spanish that we had to say every day at the beginning of class, I can pretty much still recite today.  That should be a clue where this is going.

My German didn't really come together until I was in Germany and had to actually use it to buy my food, to find directions, to do everything.

I learned Thai in Peace Corps training and while living in Thailand for three years.  Our Peace Corps language training was 50 minute sessions, one native speaker teacher, and five or six students, for about eight hours a day.  That doesn't include out of class studying so we'd be ready for the next day.  And we learned by memorizing dialogues - dialogues which turned out to be pretty useful idiomatic Thai that were immediately useful when we arrived om country.  Enough so that people thought our Thai was much better than it was.  Once we got off the dialogues we were in trouble.

But the dialogues were preceded by exercises where a Thai speaker would repeat sounds and first we had to be able to distinguish whether the two sounds were the same or different.  This sounds a lot like what Dr. Kuhl is doing with the infants to test their ability to hear sounds.  Then we had to reproduce the sounds.  First we just listened to Thai tones.  Then we listened to Thai vowels and consonant sounds that are significantly different from sounds represented by English letters.  (Most Thai sounds have a close relative in English - the r sound might not be the same as an English r, but they'll understand you.)

We learned with a phonetic alphabet so that helped free us from thinking a Thai sound was the same as the English sound.  While it would have been more difficult at first to learn the Thai alphabet, I think it would have been preferable in the long run.  If we could learn the phonetic alphabet, we could have learned the Thai alphabet.  It took me a lot longer than necessary to learn to read Thai  and writing is still painfully slow.

I think the problems I have with Dr. Kuhl's comments about adult language learning are based on:

  1. The  experiments she presented focus on learning to recognize sounds of a foreign language that don't exist in the native language.  I agree that adults don't learn sounds like kids do, but learning to be fluent in a language doesn't mean you become accent free.   It does mean you can understand most of what you hear and can respond so native speakers understand you.
  2. Comparisons of child and adult language acquisition don't really compare the same things.  Children learn in total immersion situations and have lots of reinforcement for each new word.  They also don't have any other languages to use to get what they want.  Adults usually learn in relatively short breaks (classes) and then go back to their native language environment.  And often, even in class, the basic language spoken is the native - not the new - language. 
I think Dr. Kuhl's research is very interesting, but I think she falls into standard 'common wisdom' mistakes when she talks about adults learning second languages that her research doesn't really address.  


  1. Well, I may start learning Russian as an adult, but we will see if I need it or I have time for it. At the moment I don't have time for a fourth language (with Hungarian) or a fifth one (but I forgot Italian but I learnt it at elementary school). At the moment I am learning Spanish hard to improve my grammar and then I want to take an "economist language exam". It means that I could use Spanish for economic purposes at work.

  2. Some Asian languages present the added difficulty of Chinese characters which necessarily limit the adult learner who might benefit from reading extensively.


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