Possible explanations for why Children do so much better at language


How often have you heard something like, “The reason that we can’t do well using a new language is that we have hard tongues”, or “Our brains don’t work like they used to.” or, “language can only be learned when you’re a child – adults can’t – period.”

The fact seems to be that analysis gets in the way of native language acquisition. Can a three year old child feel that his language development is slow? Can he think for hours on end about whether a word should be pronounced a certain way or not?

I know that if we ever hold onto any excuse, it becomes fact, based on the reality that we’re holding it up as fact. The ALG program has shown that adults can indeed become fluent in a language acquired as an adult. Apart from ALG, people all over the world have demonstrated this as well.

Perhaps, rather than holding to an excuse such as those mentioned above, or by imagining that some people are just gifted (meaning that you aren’t and thereby negating yourself from the possibility that you could become fluent in a new language) it makes more sense to realize that language fluency is the outgrowth of enough exposure to understandable experiences. Then you could start to fill up your time with gaining memorable, interesting and understandable experiences  – this is much more fun than language classes anyway!

Adults often state that of course they can’t learn a new language because they’re no longer children, and they already have a language that [must] be in the way. What we’ve seen often enough is that adults actually grow language faster than children. Just not when they try to do it all manually.

I find it much better to not limit my thinking about the capacity of our brains. What I also find helpful, is to place the entire process into an age model – what is your language age? – and do things that are age appropriate. So many frustrations occur because we try to force things at the wrong time or place. This is as true for children as well as adults. In English my ability is nearing 50 years. In Thai, it’s probably around 20. That’s a fairly big difference and if I’m not sensitive to this, I’ll frustrate those around me, as well as myself!


I believe your assertions are correct as far as the learning limitations we impose upon ourselves and our abilities. It is easily the most difficult obstacle to overcome in learning another language and/or another skill set.

In my personal experience, I know I’ve limited myself greatly, simply because I believe I don’t speak thai clear enough to interact with thai people to any great degree. Now whether there is actually some truth to my belief is another story. Even though I know deep inside if I would discard this misplaced idea my spoken thai would improve possibly exponentially because I’d speak more, it’s a hard habit to break.

Another factor which can and does come into play is ‘mother language interference’. This usually comes into the mix after a person acquires a sufficient vocabulary in a language to start constructing their own sentences instead of parroting out frozen-phrases. It works both for foreigners speaking thai and thais speaking english.

Often times I know what I want to say, say it but the word order or sentence structure is based on how I’d say it in english instead of the correct way to say it in thai. While it’s true, thai has a S-V-O type of structure, all the modifiers, tense/direction/time markers, emotive particles etc, don’t follow english structure. It’s the reason some thais who may know quite a large vocabulary in english yet who haven’t had the chance to actually study english will often say things like; mother me, car red, house big. They are using thai language rules of putting a possessive pronouns and modifiers AFTER the noun instead of before it. I continually have to catch myself as I do it unintentionally when speaking thai; probably because the structure of how a sentence goes together is ‘hard-wired’ in my brain to be constructed a certain way; the american english way.

Another issue is the multitude of ways to structure something in thai which carries the same meaning as far as context, etc. Often time’s students in thai will be overwhelmed with the myriad of different sentence constructs which can be used to convey the same facts or ideas. I’ve found if you pick the most colloquially used construct and stick with it, the thais understand you to a greater degree. An additional problem I have noticed is; written and spoken thai are far more dissimilar than written and spoken english.

I continue to plod forward in my thai language acquisition, but have a far way to go to be remotely proficient.

I always enjoy your entries in your blogs, and your ‘take on all things to do with the thai language’.



Thanks for your comments Tod. I know that for me, of all the difficulties I’ve ever faced in doing anything that others said was difficult, the greatest challenges have always been those created by my own thinking!


Adults should benefit from experience while acquiring a second language. Having done something before usually offers some advantage.

However, it does appear to me that knowledge can be a very real obstacle to learning. A knowledge base is used to filter new information. The challenge for adults is turning off those filters, lowering the barriers, and acquiring new information in an unobstructed manner similar to a child.


Hi David,

I’ve just stumbled across your blog and, as a long fan of Dr Brown’s ideas on language learning, I must say: thumbs up!

I’d like to ask you a few questions and would greatly appreciate any reply =)

1. I’m currently learning Japanese. After 2-3 years of silly college classes (which I did spectacularly well in), I realised that academic methods weren’t going to cut it. I’ve switched to a diet of watching TV, reading books, and listening to radio. I also use a spaced repetition system – I cut up dialogues, audio books, radio broadcasts into sentences, chuck them into the SRS, and just listen. I score the cards based on familiarity – if it sounds like something I’ve heard before I give it a higher score, and a lower score for something that sounds new.

Is the use of an SRS ok? Or will it interfere with my language learning? Would just watching TV and radio be better?

2. How do I apply ALG methods if I can’t go to AUA or the country of the target language? Watch TV?


Submitted by abelian (not verified) on Wed, 07/28/2010 – 15:23.

Hi David,I’ve got a question: sometimes when I’m watching what’s go