Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Sunday, March 21, 2004

THE CHILD'S SECRET
By Dr. J. Marvin Brown

It is common knowledge that when people move to a new country the children will end up speaking the language natively and the adults won't. The widely accepted explanation is that children have a special 'gift' that they lose as they grow up. Even with the coming of the age of science this 'gift' theory went unquestioned, and early linguists thought some special remedy was needed. They proposed that, for adults, languages should be taught and studied instead of picked up. And this idea slowly evolved into present day language teaching.

But are we any better off with present day language teaching? Why, for example, do adults in Central Africa clearly do better when they move to a new language community than our modern students do? Could it be that early linguists (and all the rest of us) were mistaken? Maybe adults can do what children do. Maybe it's just typical adult behavior (not adult inadequacy) that interferes.

THE MISTAKE – Children can do something that adults cannot.

THE UNASKED QUESTION – What would happen if an adult were to just listen for a year without speaking?

OUR ANSWER – Both adults and children can do it right, but only adults can do it wrong.

It seems that the difference between adults and children is not that adults have lost the ability to do it right, (that is, to pick up languages natively by listening) but that children haven't yet gained the ability to do it wrong (that is, to spoil it all with contrived speaking). We're suggesting that it's this contrived speaking (consciously thinking up one's sentences – whether it be with translations, rules, substitutions, expansions, or any other kind of thinking,) that damages adults, even when the sentences come out right). We're also suggesting that natural speaking (speaking that comes by itself) won't cause damage (not even when it's wrong). It seems that the harm doesn't come from being wrong but from thinking things up.

What we're suggesting is this: The reason that children always end up as native speakers is because they learn to speak by listening. And the reason that adults don't is because they learn to speak by speaking.

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