So you're no longer a child - but can you still DO what the child does?


This is an introduction to a series of blogs focusing on differences between what young children and adults do in gaining a new language. If we want to gain the same results as children, we need to be doing the same things!Sometimes, when I tell adults that they have the ability to acquire a language in very much the same way as young children, I get these looks like I’d just fallen off some distant star.

I wonder, what it is about this (to me reasonable) claim that is so difficult for people to grasp?  I mean, as adults sometimes it’s like we’ve lost our minds! INTRODUCTION: This is the introduction to a series of blogs comparing some of the differences between children and adults.  Traditional wisdom with regard to learning tells us that we lose windows of opportunity to learn certain things.  Studies of people who’ve grown up past a certain critical period, completely isolated (therefore without any language) are unable to acquire a language.  So that means that if we’re older than a certain age, we’re unable to acquire a second language too, right?  WRONG!  That’s an assumption but there are certainly other explanations.

In language learning, the world it seems has accepted this assumption without question and run with it – never considering what happens when normal* adults do what children do in acquiring a new language. (normal here means unimpaired people who have grown up socialized with a native language, and not victims of accidents, physical disorders or the medical establishment’s propensity for operations.)  Because of this, we have a whole range of theories to explain why adults “can’t” acquire a language like a young child! Ask yourself this – Do you really want to believe that you’ve lost the ability to acquire a new language effortlessly as a child does?  Do you really want to be making excuses the rest of your life for why your language ability is so poor?  Excuses like, “My tongue is hardened!” or “I’m tone deaf!” or “I just can’t seem to remember what things are supposed to mean!”  Perhaps you’d like to get more technical and say things like, “My LAD isn’t working anymore!” or It’s not possible to to do what children do, because we’re not children anymore.” Hmmm, perhaps I have come from another star!

I’ve never wanted to accept these ideas.  Not only do they ALL lack any sort of scientific underpinnings, they don’t fit with my observations of children and adult differences.  When I came to Thailand, not knowing any Thai at all, I had two small boys, aged 2 and 4.  There was literally nothing they could do, that I couldn’t do faster and more efficiently.  Why should language be any different?  I had one other important realization at that time.

I knew that I was a very poor language learner in traditional programs.  I just didn’t want my failures in language study to become the reasons why adults can’t do what children do so easily! So, rather than to look at the seeming fact (there are many exceptions) that adults never seem to achieve the same results as young children, I had the exceptional good fortune to have moved to Bangkok where Dr. J. Marvin Brown had just started his revolutionary approach at AUA’s Thai Program.  This approach, ignoring the assumptions about why adults could no longer do it, focused on what children do and sought to replicate the equivalent for adults!  Magic had found its way into my head and heart! The following blogs in this series will consider what these differences are – and seek to provide ideas for things you can do to gain the sort of input that children have all around them naturally.