Who Can Learn More English in Less Time? Kids or Adults?

A Morning Dedicated to Learning Spoken English

Imagine the following scenario. An English language teacher spends two mornings with first-time English learners: young children ages 4-5 and mature learners of various ages. The shared native language of the learners utilizes the Roman alphabet. The teacher uses the native language of the learners as the language of instruction to introduce the new material.

What is likely to happen? How will the progress of these groups differ?

The Young Children

In that one day, the younger learners will be able to get a good head start. They will be eager to memorize interesting vocabulary. They will enjoy making sounds that are new and strange to them. They should be allowed ample space for surprise, laughter, and being silly together even if such behavior slows down the coverage. The excitement of discovery and mutual enjoyment of the material will be key to engaging their attention later.

A high retention rate will be all but guaranteed if all of the new information is presented in a highly engaging way--such as in the form of games with praise for success and encouragement with corrections--and with frequent breaks.

Vocabulary and commands, but not sentences, will be the appropriate material.

Commands taught in related pairs will be easier to learn.. The teacher might introduce "Stop" with "Go" and "Stand" with "Sit" and "Stand." A simpler form of "Simon Says" could be repeated throughout the morning to practice the handful of commands. The physical activity involved will be highly enjoyable to the children and necessary to maintain their focus.

Some categories of vocabulary that will work well are basic colors and numbers one through ten, some words for weather, or some favorite animals.

The next day, the young children will not be able to produce all of the new words on command. Most will remember many of them and will be familiar with many more. Matching the new words with their meanings may be the easiest way to reintroduce the new words and will be a great review exercise before asking them to reproduce the words.

The Adults

One thing is for sure, most adults who are keen on learning a new language (without prior knowledge) would require fewer breaks and less entertainment throughout the instruction than would children. In just one morning, most mature learners would be capable of acquiring a solid foundation for their future learning of the new language.

Adult learners usually crave knowing the key ways that English differs from their first language. Comparative instruction is useful for them to prevent making subconscious assumptions or falling back on the constructions of their native languages.

In just one morning, adults are capable of coming to an understanding (with no emphasis placed on memorization) of the following key machinations:

  • basic English syntax (word order)

  • how to identify all the major parts of speech (even in sentences they don't completely understand)

  • how articles and descriptors work with nouns

  • how the verb conjugation chart works to determine the forms of verbs in sentences

Given a sample of regular vocabulary in the above categories, adults who spend a day learning the above are capable of attempting complex sentences and offering corrections for mistakes before the day is over.

Lengthy word lists or vocabulary flashcards can be introduced later because adults know how to use a dictionary and can independently discover most new words when they require them.

The next day, the adults will require only a light revisit of the prior day's material, but this review should definitely take place. Some may have new questions about the previous day's material and this stage of learning should be given priority over any new material.

Additional practice should follow the review in order to reinforce understanding and build confidence. Adults will be eager to progress in the form of using new structures with fewer errors, and the confidence they build will ultimately speed up their learning process going forward.

Busting the Old Myths

The popularly held belief that no matter the circumstances, children can always become fluent in English before their parents can because they are "cleaner slates" or "little sponges" is not truly accurate. What is really crucial in rapid new language acquisition for any age group is that the circumstances be optimized for that age group.

It's as simple (or as complex) as that.

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