As the old adage goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And a slew of scientific research has confirmed the spirit of the saying — at least when it comes to learning a new language. One recent study, however, challenges the notion of a language skill learning advantage in children.
The leading thought that children are better than adults at learning a new language is, in part, due to their brains rewiring more easily, thus, allowing children to adapt to the unique set of sounds of a different language. The language superiority of children has also been attributed to the childhood reliance on implicit learning, which is the ability to learn a new language without conscious thought. Adults are believed to rely on explicit memory, i.e., by learning language rules in an active, rather than passive, way.
Yet, contrary to the belief of a language learning advantage in children, results from a recent study show that, under controlled conditions, adults acquire new languages better than children. Sara Ferman from Tel Aviv University, Israel and Avi Karni from the University of Haifa, Israel, created an experiment in which 8-year-olds, 12-year-old, and adults were given the opportunity to learn a new, artificial language rule.
Kept hidden from the subjects, the mock rule held that the spelling and pronunciation of some verbs were contingent on whether the verbs referred to an animate or inanimate object. The participants listened to a list of correct noun-verb pairs and were then instructed to utter the correct verb given other nouns. Unlike the adults and the 12-year-olds, the 8-year olds failed to explicitly discover why verbs were spelled differently and were unable to generalize the rule accurately to new objects.
Two months after the initial meeting, the participants were tested again to see what they retained. “The adults were consistently better in everything we measured,” New Scientist quoted Ferman as saying.
Ferman and Karni contend, “Adults were superior to children of both age groups and the 8-year-olds were the poorest learners in all task parameters including in those that were clearly implicit.” They go on to conclude, “In line with recent reports of no childhood advantage in non-linguistic skill learning, we propose that under some learning conditions adults can effectively express their language skill acquisition potential.”
The study’s results have received mixed reviews. Some, like David Birdsong from the University of Texas, Austin, find the data exciting. Others discourage inferring any groundbreaking generalizations from the research. Robert DeKeyser from the University of Maryland in College Park, for example, argues that the results of the artificial experiment do not necessarily apply to language learning in the actual world. Even if it were the case that adults are better at implicit learning, children are nevertheless better positioned to learn implicitly outside the confines of artificial experiments.
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– S.P. Sagisi
The study, which you can learn more about here, was presented at last week’s International Congress for the Study of Child Language meeting in Montreal.