What If We’ve Been Teaching Languages Wrong?
Most people think it’s easier for a young child to learn a language, compared to an adult.
That’s certainly what the conventional wisdom says. We also have the anecdotal evidence that many people fail to learn a second language, but no one fails to learn their native language.
But doesn’t that seem a little odd? After all, adults do basically everything else better than children, including learning. Why are languages different?
The most popular theory is that there is something special about brain plasticity during infancy that is perfect for learning languages. The usual metaphor is that an infant’s brain soaks up language like a sponge soaks up water.
It’s a satisfying enough explanation that most people stop asking questions and just accept it as fact. But it isn’t the only explanation available to us. In fact, it might not even be the most obvious.
The biggest difference between an infant learning a language and an adult learning a language is that we employ opposite teaching techniques for the two groups:
A Mexican infant is going to be taught Spanish in Spanish. An English speaking adult is going to be taught Spanish in English.
In a typical Spanish class, instead of listening to Spanish speakers express themselves, you’ll learn about Spanish grammar and how to translate from English to Spanish. This is useful if you want to learn about Spanish, but not if you want to learn Spanish.
Caught vs. Taught
When learning a language, learning the grammar is critical. But learning about the grammar is not.
Lets use an example from English.
Which is correct?
- The black big dog
- The big black dog