Do children learn languages in a fundamentally different way than adults?

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On one hand, it seems that languages are very different in their level of difficulty in when starting to learn them from scratch: anywhere from Riau Indonesian to Finnish. On the other hand, the general linguistic consensus seems to be that children need the same time to learn the language and they speak them by four. I have been thinking how to reconcile those two and then I thought maybe that’s because children and adults learn languages differently.

I am not experienced in linguistics to be making these guesses but I was just thinking about it… Might it be that children need about the same time to learn different languages because they learn each form of the word separately? I was talking about Lithuanian with another native speaker and there is a clear transformation of d+iu to d+ž+iu in the word girdžiu but it seems that they do not really think of it is as transformation. That’s just a random example, but the point stands: it is true that children do know the rules of grammar and can use it but may it not be that they simply learn nearly all of the forms of the words by rote even if they don’t need to.

On the other hand, when adults learn languages, they can learn all the forms at once if they are regular. They just need to learn the conjugations and get the infinitives of different verbs to be able to conjugate them. I am not denying that children can do that conjugation if they really need to, I am just saying that perhaps most of the time they don’t need to because they have learned all of the forms by rote due to high exposure to all of them.

So, for example, when children learn two Portuguese verbs, say falar and parar, they learn the forms falar, falo, falas, fala, falamos, falam… and then they also learn parar, paro, paras, para, paramos, param and all of them by rote anyway while for adults it is enough to learn only one of those and then they apply it to the other. Children also learn words as separate elements so I got it (i.e. I understood the point) versus I got it (i.e. I got a pony for birthday) would be as two words with two meanings for children while for adults they would be one word with two meanings: thus it’s 4 elements to learn versus 3.

Languages have similar numbers of word forms since they talk about similar things in all languages and that would explain why children need about the same time to learn all the languages of the world even taking into account their seemingly different difficulty.

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9 Comments


  1. ·

    The answer is yes, they do. The learning of a native language is different from the learning of a second language for a whole myriad of reasons: time, situation, cognitive abilities, interactions…

    But children don’t learn language by rote. They learn it in interaction with their caretakers. They acquire and produce the language they need to express their needs and desires.


  2. ·

    The answer is yes, they do. The learning of a native language is different from the learning of a second language for a whole myriad of reasons: time, situation, cognitive abilities, interactions…

    But children don’t learn language by rote. They learn it in interaction with their caretakers. They acquire and produce the language they need to express their needs and desires.


  3. ·

    I believe children learn phrases and word combinations as ready-to-go language building blocks. Most of the adults, on the other hand, when learning a foreign language learn about the language's grammar, syntax and so on. So it's deductive vs inductive which explains very well why children (and indeed adults if learning a language in a natural spoken environment) can acquire a language much quicker.

    It could be argued whether children learn all forms of words – I think everything is down to frequency of the words used in everyday life. The different verb conjugations, for instance, would be included in different phrases a child would learn – I'm going home, Dad goes home etc. In other languages where both singular and plural verbs change depending on person the child might not even learn them all by the age of four.

    I'm Latvian and I have two daughters – they're eleven now – but not so long ago I still had to correct them when using some not so often used verb form.

    So I believe that the more word variations and cases a particular language has, the more it might actually take for the child to acquire the language fully. Thus the language learned by children by the age of four will suit them for all the daily needs which will definitely fall short of all the language subtleties.


  4. ·

    Ļoti labs komentārs. Es arī tā domāju, bet šķiet ka tagad nekas nezina cik laika berni mācās valodu.

    It seems to me like there are just a bunch of guesses and no solid data, at least from the reading I have done.

    There's Chomsky on one hand and on the other hand they have those empiricist hypothesis. I guess a Milton Friedman of linguistics would be nice…


  5. ·

    Paldies! ;-) Yes, I suppose you're right – I just browsed Wikipedia for a while on the topic and it looks there are many theories but not a general consensus.

  6. Zane Claes
    ·

    I'd recommend reading up on some developmental neuroscience – it has a lot to say about the topic. I don't want to misquote, but there are a few interesting facts. For example the so-called “windows of opportunity” make a child's brain much more receptive to certain types of learning at certain stages. During this early language acquisition stage that you're talking about, children often learn something like 4-7 NEW words per day.

    I would speculate (and from what I remember from my neuroscience and linguistics classes) that children do not learn differently – they are just more primed for certain acquisition at certain ages (eg. the aptly named “babbling” phase of language acquisition is for learning the sounds involved).

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