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Learning a Foreign Language in Childhood Research Paper


Thesis statement

Nowadays, it became a commonplace assumption among many educators that, as compared to what it is usually being the case with adults; children are more than capable of learning new languages with ease (McMurray 161).

The validity of this assumption is supported by the empirical observations of what account for the specifics of how a child becomes familiar with a particular language, and by the fact that, as of today, there is a plenty of the thematically relevant academic literature that contains the analytical insights into the phenomenon in question (Bloom 15). In this paper, I will review a number of the academic articles of interest, while striving to substantiate the validity of the idea that the very psychological specifics of how a child perceives the surrounding reality and its place in it, create the objective preconditions for him or her to be naturally predisposed towards becoming proficient in a foreign language. I will also review those articles of interest, the authors of which promote a qualitatively different outlook on the topic in question.

Literature Review

One of the most insightful articles, in regards to the discussed subject matter, is Précis of how children learn the meanings of words by Paul Bloom. Probably the main thematically relevant finding, contained in this article, is that, “Young children

can grasp aspects of the meaning of a new word on the basis of a few incidental exposures, without any explicit training or feedback” (2001, p. 1099). The author explains this by the fact by the specifics of how the brain of a young child actually functions. According to him, just as it happened to be the case with the brain of an adult person, the brain of a child never ceases to remain thoroughly preoccupied with trying to ensure the physical survival of its ‘bearer’.

However, due to being young-aged and inexperienced, children are quite incapable of securing the affiliated environmental niche on their own, which in turn makes them utterly depended on adults. Consequently, this causes the brain of a child to be particularly sensitive to what it perceives as the surrounding reality’s emotionally charged emanations and their linguistic signifiers (words). In other words, the reason why many children appear to memorize words in a foreign language, without needing to apply much of an effort, is that they are naturally driven to associate the semantic content of every particular word with what used to be the emotional state of their mind, at the time when the concerned word was uttered. As the author pointed out, “Some of the children’s basic assumptions about word-learning, such as the belief that words will be arbitrary and bi-directional signs, or that words do not have overlapping reference follow from their understanding of the mental states of people who use words” (2001, p. 1100).

Apparently, for a child that studies a new language, the words that he or she strives to memorize represent the value of a ‘thing in itself’ – instead of relating to these words cognitively, children relate to them emotionally. The validity of Bloom’s suggestion, in this respect, can be indirectly illustrated, in regards to the fact that it is specifically the emotionally-intense forms of learning that are believed to be the most effective ones – regardless of whether the concerned audiences consists of children or adults.

The article A human universal: The capacity to learn a language by Lila Gleitman contains a number of the additional insights into the issue of children’s proficiency in learning a new language. For example, the author outlines the main phenomenological subtlety of the issue in question, “In the first stages of learning a second language, adults appear to be more efficient than children… But the long-range outcome is just the reverse. After one to two years, very young children speak the new language fluently and sound just like the natives.

This is highly uncommon in adults” (1993, p. 6). According to Gleitman, this can be seen as the effect of the adults’ weakened ability to ‘blend in’ within the unfamiliar social environment – especially if they happened to be ethically visible. Children, on the other hand, can be well described in terms of ‘tabula rasa’ (a blank sheet of paper) – having not applied a considerable effort into trying to become thoroughly comfortable in a particular linguistic environment, they are capable of adjusting to the new one with ease. The author mentions another commonly overlooked aspect of what accounts for the methodological difference between how children and adults learn new languages – the fact that, as opposed to what it is being the case with children, adults often experience the sensation of shyness, while trying to apply their newly acquired linguistic skills in practice.

The reason for this is that, throughout the course of the learning process, adults remain fully aware that initially, they will be able to construct only the semantically and syntaxically primitive sentences. This, of course, causes the concerned adults a great deal of an emotional unease. As Gleitman noted, “Foreign adults first arriving in a new linguistic community will also sound linguistically primitive… but surely not because they are unaccountably returning to a primitive maturational state” (1993, p. 24).

After all, unlike what it happened to be the case with children, many adults do strive to adopt the posture of intellectually advanced individuals, as such that reflects their actual worth in life. Therefore, there is nothing surprising about the phenomenon in question – on an unconscious level, adults tend to perceive the process of learning a new language, as such that leads to the ‘primitiveness’. Even though the earlier outlined explanation by Gleitman appears somewhat speculative, it nevertheless can be well deemed discursively legitimate – all due to its logical soundness.

Another article that will come in particularly handy, within the review’s conceptual framework, is How children learn language: Keys to success by Susan Canizares. The reason for this is that this article emphasizes yet another discursive reason for children to be good at learning a foreign language – the fact that children cannot help remain utterly curious about the surrounding world. In its turn, this naturally causes them to go about exploring it – such as by the mean of learning the strangely sounding words. As the author pointed out, “Young children love the sound of long and seemingly difficult words. They will often pick up unusual words through stories that are read to them, or through exposure to dramatic uses of language” (2003, p. 203).

What it means is that, as opposed to what it is being the case with adults, children are naturally predisposed towards learning a new language, because according to Canizares, the mentioned curiosity, on their part, helps children to be able to: a) grasp the meaning of verbal constructions, b) understand how words are being used in conjunction with other words, c) gain awareness of what accounts for a particular word’s syntactic behavior. The author uses her empirical observations, in regards to how children learn a new language, to come up with the recommendation that parents may never cease encouraging their young ones to grow increasingly familiarized with the meaning of the abstractly sounding words, “By using rich words such as organize, collaborate, and arrange, you (parents) will both expand and deepen children’s understanding of language” (2003, p. 205). According to her, this course of action is thoroughly consistent with the innate essence of young children’s cognitive longings.

The validity of the assumption that it is indeed much easier for children to learn a new language can also be shown, in regards to the thematically relevant insights, contained in the article How childhood advertising exposure can create biased product evaluations that persist into adulthood by Paul Connell, Merrie Brucks and Jesper Nielsen. Even though that the article’s subject matter (defining the effects of children’s exposure to advertisements) does not relate to the discussed topic of interest formally, it does so factually.

The reason for this is that in their article, the authors refer to the psychological studies on the subject of what defines the actual mechanics of children’s cognition. As it appears from these studies, there are two dialectically predetermined reasons for children not to experience much trouble, while familiarizing themselves with a foreign language. First, a person’s early memorization of things (words) is always the emotionally-charged one – therefore, more efficient: “Research in cognitive psychology indicates that what is learned early is learned well. Words, objects, faces, and brand names learned early in life are recognized and categorized more quickly and more accurately than those acquired later in life (2014, p. 3).

Second, the process of learning a new language, on a child’s part, results in the creation of the spatially stable associative links between neurons inside of his or her brain, “Evidence suggests that early acquired concepts shape neural networks into an efficient form for representing them, resisting attempts at reconfiguration by later learned concepts” (2014, p. 5).

It is understood, of course, that the mentioned insights do support the idea that it is indeed much easier for a child to learn a new language, as compared to what it is being the case with an adult. After all, in light of how the authors went about describing the specifics of children’s perception/cognition, this state of affairs appears thoroughly consistent with the most fundamental laws of nature.

The article The effect of semantic set size on word learning by preschool children by Holly Storkel and Suzanne Adlof presents us with yet the additional set of conceptualizations, as to the fact that children are predisposed towards learning a new language with ease. The rationale behind this suggestion can be outlined, as follows: While trying to memorize a new word, an individual inevitably seeks to establish a semantic connection between the word in question, and the already memorized words that are assumed to convey a similar message or to denote a similar object. The smaller is the set of associations (‘set size’) that the concerned word may invoke in a person’s brain, the easier it should prove for this word to be memorized. As the authors noted, “Generally, recall is superior for words with a small set size (i.e., few semantic neighbors) than for words with a large set size… it is thought that words with a large set size lead to confusability between studied words” (2009, p. 307).

The implication of the above-mentioned is quite clear – the reason why children are known for the sheer speed, with which they become proficient in a particular new language, is that due to the limitedness of their life-experiences, the ‘set size’ with the would-be invoked semantic associations will necessarily be small. In plain words, as opposed to what it is being the case with adults, children are simply not knowledgeable enough, in order to be naturally inclined to confuse the verbally expressed semantic denotations. This, of course, helps them in the way of learning a new language rather substantially. Thus, in the conceptual sense of this word, this particular article promotes essentially the same idea with the previously analyzed one – there are a number of the clearly positivist overtones to the phenomena in question.

Nevertheless, there are also a number of articles, the authors of which advocate the idea that there is no a direct relationship between what happened to be the age of a language-learner, on the one hand, and his or her likelihood to succeed in the undertaking. One of these articles is The application of Semantic Field Theory to English vocabulary learning by Chunming Gao and Bin.Xu. The main argument, contained in this article, is as follows – the effectiveness of a language-learning process reflects whether the unconscious workings of a leaner’s psyche do correlate with the cognition-related provisions of the concerned ‘lexical field’. The latter Gao and Xu define as the, “Domain, which refers to the combination of a bunch of words with interrelated meanings and dominated under a same concept” (2013, p. 2031).

For example, whereas, one person may be predisposed towards distinguishing between the words axe, saw and hammer (instruments), on one hand, and the words wood or metal (material), on the other, this does not necessarily mean that it will also be the case with another person. After all, the latter may be well inclined to refer to the earlier mentioned words under the lexical umbrella of ‘usefulness’, which would prevent him or her from being able to understand what accounts for a difference between the notions of ‘instruments’ and ‘materials’, in the first place. What it means is that the factor of one’s age cannot be considered decisive, within the context of what defines the successfulness of the process of this person becoming familiarized with a new language.

It does not really matter whether a particular language-learner happened to be an adult or a child. What matters, within the context of ensuring the high efficiency of a learning-process, is that the specifics of the concerned individual’s ‘brain wiring’ are consistent with the principles of forming ‘lexical fields’ in the language of interest. The authors, however, do not come with any practical advices, in this respect. This can be considered the article’s major shortcoming.

The article Is younger really better? Anxiety about learning a foreign language in Turkish children by Esim Gürsoy and Feride.Akin is also being largely supportive of the idea that there can be no a well-established link between one’s proficiency, as a language-learner, and the person’s age. The main reason why adults are being traditionally deemed somewhat ‘slow’ language-learners, is that they happened to be affected by a number of the unconsciously felt social anxieties, in regards to the very idea of becoming proficient in a foreign language. These anxieties have a strongly defined negative effect on people’s ability to use the studied language for the purpose of an interpersonal communication. According to the authors, “Anxiety influences performance in a second language and ability to acquire knowledge worsens in an educational setting with many anxiety-producing factors. Such an environment may cause learners to make mistakes that they would not normally make” (2013, p. 829).

This specific observation, on the authors’ part, has led them to hypothesize that there are no good reasons to believe that children’s seeming ‘superiority’ (when compared to adults) in learning new languages is a positivist category. The sociological data of interest, collected throughout the study’s empirical phase, confirms the validity of the above-mentioned hypothesis. After, in light of this data, it appears that it is indeed possible for educators to go about increasing the effectiveness of a language-learning process among adults, by the mean of identifying and addressing the linguistic anxieties in learners. It is understood, of course, that this can be deemed as the additional indication of the concerned phenomenon being a rather ‘situational’ one. Thus, the article implies that the language-learning abilities of adults can be well matched with those of children.

Essentially the same point of view is being promoted by Kathy Piehl and her article Can adults learn a second language? Research findings and personal experience. According to the author, the assumption that, as compared to children, it is much harder for adults to acquire skills in a foreign language, does not stand much of a ground. In light of what happened to her own experience in learning a foreign language as an adult, Biehl suggests that there is nothing ‘intricate’ about the fact that some adults do show the lack of success in the concerned undertaking. According to the author, the phenomenon in question is best explained in terms of the ‘environmentalist’ theory of linguistics, “The lack of success (associated with adult-learners) stems from the fact that most adult learners fail to engage in the task with sufficient motivation, commitment of time or energy” (2011, p. 37).

Another motivational factor, behind the discussed state of affairs, the author considers the fact that, as opposed to what it happened to be the usual situation with child-learners, adult-learners are being rarely provided with the opportunity to ‘immerse’ themselves into the studied language’s actual atmosphere. Thus, Biehl’s article stands opposed to the idea that, the sooner one begins to learn a new language, the better.

Summary

The earlier provided literature-review, allowed me to obtain the following thesis-supporting insights, into the discussed subject matter:

  1. There is indeed a good reason to think that the apparent ease, with which children learn a new language, is objectively predetermined. After all, this assumption appears thoroughly consistent with the evolutionary outlook on what caused people to develop the skills of a verbal communication, in the first place.
  2. The idea that children are naturally predisposed towards excelling in a new language can also be deemed discursively sound, within the context of what psychologists know about the mechanics of one’s cognition. The reason for this is that, while assessing the surrounding linguistic reality through the lenses of a perceptual emotionalism, children are naturally driven to establish the links between the learnt words and the specific set of emotions, they experienced while learning these words.
  3. The paper’s initial hypothesis appears validated, in light of what account for the actual specifics of how one’s brain functions. The reason for this is that it is namely the ‘early-created’ neural networks, which appear to be the most long-lasting ones. What it means is that, the earlier in its life a particular individual learns a new word; the longer it will be stored in his or her memory.

Nevertheless, while proceeding to conduct a literature-review, I also stumbled upon a number of facts, which seem to contradict the initially proposed hypothesis. The most important of them are as follows:

  1. There is a certain evidence that the age of a particular language-learner does not define the innermost manner, in which the concerned individual goes about forming the mentioned earlier ‘lexical fields’.
  2. The fact that many adults seem to experience a hard time, while learning a new language, can be well discussed as such that simply reflects the lack of the concerned people’s educational commitment. This idea, of course, does contradict the paper’s initial thesis.

Thus, it will only be logical to conclude this paper by suggesting that, due to the discussed topic’s discursive complexity, it should be made the subject of the investigative literature-reviews in the future.

References

Bloom, P. (2000). How children learn the meanings of words, Cambridge: MIT Press. Web.

Bloom, P. (2001). Précis of how children learn the meanings of words. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24, 1095–1103. Web.

Canizares, S. (2003). How children learn language: Keys to success. Scholastic Early Childhood Today, 17(5), 30-40. Web.

Connell, P., Brucks, M. & Nielsen, J. (2014). How childhood advertising exposure can create biased product evaluations that persist into adulthood. Journal of Consumer Research, 41, 1-17. Web.

Gao, C. & Xu, B. (2013). The application of Semantic Field Theory to English vocabulary learning. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 3 (11), 2030-2035. Web.

Gleitman, L. (1993). Human universal: The capacity to learn a language. Modern Philology, 90, 13-33. Web.

Gursoy, E. & Akin, F. (2013). Is younger really better? Anxiety about learning a foreign language in Turkish children. Social Behavior and Personality, 41 (5), 827-841. Web.

Piehl, K. (2011). Can adults learn a second language? Research findings and personal experience. Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 78 (1), 33-37. Web.

McMurray, B. (2007). Moo-cow! Mummy! More! How do children learn so many words? Significance, 4 (4), 159-163. Web.

Storkel, H. & Adlof, S. (2009). The effect of semantic set size on word learning by preschool children. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 52 (2), 306-320. Web.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Learning a Foreign Language in Childhood." June 5, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/learning-a-foreign-language-in-childhood/.

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