A few months ago, I became very interested in how children learn French compared to adults. However, as I researched, I noticed that there are many different perspectives on this topic.
I read articles and blog posts that came to the conclusion that children find learning French easier than adults as well as other articles that provided evidence of the opposite. Due to the variety of opinions that people have, I decided to start teaching students who are still in grade school in order to get first-hand experience. Prior to last February, I had only ever taught French to teenagers and adults. Over the past few months I have learned quite a bit, and I wanted to write this article discussing my observations on the differences that age has on learning French as a second language.
I have noticed a few differences between adults and children. First of all, children tend to have less inhibition when speaking; in other words, they are less afraid of making mistakes. In addition, they are also more prone to finding their mistakes humorous, which often makes language learning an enjoyable process for them.
Let me give you an example.
One of my youngest students is about 6 years old. A few days ago, we were playing a game together in which I would draw something and she had to guess what I had drawn. The first picture I drew was a house with a chimney. The word for chimney in French is la cheminée. However, my student accidentally said la chemise (the shirt). When I pointed out the mistake, my student found it to be absolutely hilarious! She asked, “Why would a house ever have a shirt on top of it? That’s very funny!”
I have had many experiences like this one and I find that children are more likely to laugh at their mistakes rather than feel embarrassed. When it comes to adults, however, things tend to be quite the opposite. As a result, adults are usually more careful to avoid errors when speaking.
Although this might seem like a good thing at first, we learn best by making mistakes. This means that adults’ care in avoiding mistakes might actually slow down their learning. Not all adults are afraid of making errors, however. In fact, if an adult learner is able to get over the fear of “sounding dumb” when speaking French, they should arguably be able to learn faster than any child. This is because, in my experience, adults have a longer attention span and are able to remember more information than a child.
The result is that adults who are not afraid to make mistakes and can learn from them will often progress much faster than a child. Additionally, adults usually have a strong foundation in their first language compared to children. Therefore, when an adult comes across a complex word in French, they can grasp the meaning relatively quickly simply by looking in a dictionary.
This is not at all the case with children. For instance, I am currently tutoring an 8-year-old student who struggles with reading in French. About one week ago, we came across the word sinistre, which means sinister in English. When I told my student the English translation, he still didn’t understand because he didn’t know the English word either. Therefore, I ended up having to explain the meaning of the English translation in order to be able to explain the meaning of the word in French. With adults, you rarely (if ever) need to go through this process, which gives adults a slight advantage.
All this being said, I personally think that age has very little to do with how quickly someone is able to learn. The most important factor to consider is the approach that the learner takes. More specifically, the people who tend to pick up French the fastest are the ones who pursue a strategy that matches their learning style. For example, I went to a French immersion school. In my classes, I remember there being many students who naturally seemed to excel, while others could barely put a few words together. I was one of the students that struggled, especially when it came to writing because I wasn’t able to learn by simply memorizing grammar rules.
Everything changed when I went to France on an exchange trip for three months. While living in France, I was able to improve my French by having casual conversations with native speakers my own age. This strategy worked extremely well for me because I am an auditory learner, and after those three months my French was at a near-native level of fluency. In other words, the speed at which I learned French had little to do with my age. Instead, it had to do with the approach that I took. As an auditory learner, I needed to be surrounded by people who were native speakers of French rather than other second language learners who may have been making the same mistakes as me.
In conclusion, by reflecting on my experiences so far, I lean towards the opinion that age is not the most important factor in determining how quickly someone learns a language. Instead, one has to examine other factors such as the student’s natural ability to learn a language and the approach that the student pursues.
Nevertheless, there are still some common differences between both groups of people. For example, children tend to be less afraid of making mistakes, while adults tend to feel embarrassed when they speak incorrectly. Another point that this post explored was how adults are able to retain more of the information that they have previously studied. This can be used as a powerful tool to accelerate their learning. I would encourage all of you to do some of your own research on this topic, especially because this article has only scratched the surface and is based primarily on my own experiences.
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