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ARE CHILDREN BETTER AT LEARNING LANGUAGES THAN ADULTS?

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Abstract

Usia merupakan faktor yang mempengaruhi keberhasilan dan kegagalan dalam akuisisi bahasa kedua. Secara umum diasumsikan bahwa anak-anak merupakan pembelajar bahasa yang baik dibanding orang dewasa. Tulisan ini akan membahas beberapa teori tentang permasalahan di atas. Secara teoretis ada beberapa faktor yang mempengaruhi kemampuan akuisisi bahasa kedua, yaitu: neurology, psikomotor, afektif, kognitif, dan input. Teori-teori di atas secara umum mengklaim bahwa anak-anak memiliki peluang yang lebih besar untuk akuisisi bahasa kedua dibanding orang dewasa. Meskipun demikian, ada temuan yang menunjukkan bahwa orang dewasa karena faktor kognitifnya menjadi lebih baik dalam hal kemampuan akuisisi bahasa kedua dibanding anak-anak. Hal ini terjadi terutama dalam hal sintaksis dan morpologi.
89
ARE CHILDREN BETTER AT LEARNING LANGUAGES
THAN ADULTS?
Syafiyah
Ketua Jurusan Bahasa dan Sastra Inggris
Fakultas Humaniora dan Budaya, Universitas Islam Negeri (UIN) Malang.
Jalan Gajayana No. 50 Telepon (0341) 570872, Faksimile (0341) 570872 Malang 65144.
Abstrak
Usia merupakan faktor yang mempengaruhi keberhasilan dan
kegagalan dalam akuisisi bahasa kedua. Secara umum diasumsikan
bahwa anak-anak merupakan pembelajar bahasa yang baik dibanding
orang dewasa. Tulisan ini akan membahas beberapa teori tentang
permasalahan di atas. Secara teoretis ada beberapa faktor yang
mempengaruhi kemampuan akuisisi bahasa kedua, yaitu: neurology,
psikomotor, afektif, kognitif, dan input. Teori-teori di atas secara umum
mengklaim bahwa anak-anak memiliki peluang yang lebih besar untuk
akuisisi bahasa kedua dibanding orang dewasa. Meskipun demikian,
ada temuan yang menunjukkan bahwa orang dewasa karena faktor
kognitifnya menjadi lebih baik dalam hal kemampuan akuisisi bahasa
kedua dibanding anak-anak. Hal ini terjadi terutama dalam hal sintaksis
dan morpologi.
Kata Kunci
Anak, Akuisisi, Bahasa Kedua, Sintaksis, Morpologi, Neurologi
Introduction
Age has been attributed as a factor that contributes to success or
failure in second language acquisition (SLA). It is generally assumed
that children are better language learners than adults. This assumption
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is derived from cases in which, when adults and children come to a
target language country or are exposed to L2 in a target language
community, children seem to acquire the target language more perfectly.
Is this phenomenon due to age difference, which means that the younger
the learner, the better he/she will be?
This paper will come up with some theoretical views dealing
with this issue. Such factors as neurological, psychomotor, cognitive,
affective, emotional, and input factors are addressed to to explain the
age-related differences of SLA.
Neurological Factor
The notion of age as a factor that determines second language
(L2) acquisition is mostly based on the belief that there is a critical period
for L2 learning, during which time the language can be acquired more
easily. The critical period hypothesis is generalized from the findings of
neurological research which support that lateralization -in which
particular functions, such as intellectual, analytical, and language
functions begin to be concentrated on the left hemisphere and the
emotion, social-related needs are assigned to the right hemisphere, -
occurs with the maturity of the brain. (Brown, 1987)
With regard to the relationship between lateralization and
language acquisition, Penfield and Roberts, as cited by Ellis (1985),
suggest that this lateralization results in the decrease of brain plasticity,
since the neurological capacity of learning language which at the
beginning involves both left and right hemispheres is eventually
centered on the left hemisphere. This neurological change is then
believed to be the direct cause of adults’ difficulty in L2 learning.
If lateralization is considered to be closely related to L2 learning,
when then does it take place? With respect to this issue, there are
different opinions among neurological researchers. Lenneberg (1967)
believes that lateralization occurs from age 2 until the age of puberty.
Geschwind (Brown, 1987), however, suggests that lateralization occurs
in much earlier age, while Krashen (Brown, 1987), in line with Scovel
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(Brown, 1987), argues that lateralization has been completed by around
the age of 5.
If there is no convincing agreement about the age at which
lateralization takes place, does it still mean that lateralization determines
L2 acquisition? Given the end view of lateralization being complete at
age 5, is it impossible to acquire a language after this age? If
lateralization is completed by the age of puberty, can it be concluded
that a second language is difficult to acquire after puberty?
Another neurological explanation is given by Seliger (1978) using a
multiple critical period hypothesis or different sensitive periods. He claimed
that the ability to acquire second language skills declines abruptly or
gradually with a loss of plasticity caused by other aspects of cerebral
maturation unrelated to lateralization, which include myelination,
thickening of the corpus callosum, and intrahemispheric specialization
or localization of function.
Of those factors, myelination has been regarded as particularly
interesting to explain. Myelination is ‚the process during which the
axon projections of many neurons undergo anatomical and chemical
changes as they are wrapped in myelin sheats consisting of lipids and
proteins, something that begins in the fetus and takes several decades to
complete‛ (Long, 1990). Completion of myelination is interpreted as
functional maturation of the brain, resulting in neural space committed
in an invariable path. The process is implicated in the decline of the
language learning capacity, and different aspects of language are
affected at different stages. The first maturational constraint affecting
phonology occurs around the age of 5 or 6, and the critical period
affecting grammar acquisition or morphology and syntax happens
around the age of 15 (Long, 1990)
However, the explanation of plasticity loss as a function of the
myelination process also raises some problems. It is considered
speculative since, in general, the evidence linking cerebral dominance
and age differences in learners is not clear (Ellis, 1986). Moreover, it is
based largely on pathological evidence generalized to normal
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populations. It is absolutely dangerous to extrapolate from the abnormal
to the normal brain. Hence, the relevance of the notion of plasticity in
non-insult situations is still doubtful? (Long, 1990)
It seems that neurological explanation in itself is not adequate to
explain the existence of critical periods in SLA. There are some other
factors which can be taken into account, one of which is psychomotor
factor which will be discussed in the following section.
Psychomotor Factor
This factor deals with the role of the psychomotor coordination of
the speech muscles in SLA which shapes accent. Human beings are
equipped with hundreds of muscles which are used in the articulation of
human speech such as throat, larynx, mouth, lips, and tongue. A high
degree of muscular control is required to acquire native-like fluency of
speaking. At birth, the speech muscles are developed only to the extent
that the larynx can control sustained cries. Gradually, these speech
muscles develop. The control of some complex sounds such as ‘r’,
however, is frequently not achieved until after age 5. Thus, children who
acquire a second language after 5 is believed to have a physical
advantage in that phonemic control of a second language is physically
possible while the plasticity is still present (Brown, 1987).
Some research findings referred to by Brown (1987), Flege (1999),
and Bongaerts (1999) have proved that beyond the age of puberty
people do not usually acquire authentic or native-like pronunciation of
the second language. Instead, they tend to speak their second language
with a foreign accent. With regard to this fact, Brown argues that it
cannot be explained merely by lateralization of the brain. Just as other
physical skills requiring muscular dexterity athletics, for instance-
speech, in particular the pronunciation, will be acquired more perfectly
if it is learned at a young age, due to the fact that pronunciation
involves the control of so many muscles. Scovel (Bongaerts, 1988)
asserts that pronunciation is the only aspect of language that has
neuromuscular basis, requires neuromotor involvement, and has a
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physical reality. On these grounds, starting learning a second language
earlier is considered advantageous.
However, it is important to note, that pronunciation of a language
is neither the only nor the most important criterion for acquisition.
Hence, people who have fluent control of a second language, but do not
have perfect pronunciation and native-like accent cannot be accounted
as not proficient in the second language. The acquisition of the
communicative and functional purposes of a language is much more
crucial.
Cognitive Factor
Cognitive theory is concerned with intellectual development of
human beings. According to Piaget (Brown, 1987), intellectual
development of a child goes through various stages, the sensomotor
stage (0-2), the pre-operational stage (2-7), and the operational stage (7-
16), with a crucial change from the concrete operational stage to the
formal operational stage around the age of 11. Based on Piaget’s
division, the most considerable stage for second language acquisition
seems to occur at puberty or within the operational stage, during which
time a person begins to develop capability of formal abstract thinking
and analysis.
The development of abstract thinking ability, according to
Rosansky (Els et al., 1987), allows people learning language to work out
rules. They are more able to compare both similarities and differences
between L1 and L2. They are also able to think flexibly and create their
own theories about L2. They become increasingly decentered, and
therefore possess a strong meta-awareness. Consequently, these may
serve as blocks to natural language acquisition, forcing the learner to
treat the acquisition task as a problem to be solved using his
‘hypothetico-deductive logic’.
Young children, on the contrary, see only similarities, lack flexible
thinking and are more self-centered. These are the pre-requisites of
automatic language acquisition. Moreover, young children do not
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realize that they are acquiring language. They also have not developed
social attitudes towards the use of one language as opposed to another.
That is why they are cognitively open to another language. This belief
supports the idea that post puberty learners are less efficient and less
successful than younger learners. It, hence, highlights the existence of
critical period hypothesis from the cognitive perspective.
However, in contrast to the above theory, there is an argument
that greater cognitive maturity and greater learning experience on the
part of the older language learners are assets (Stern, 1983). The cognitive
advantages of adults take place especially in formal language learning
situations, since they possess a greater memory storage capacity for
analytic reasoning and can develop a strong instrumental motivation,
qualities which can lead to very effective learning (Els, et al., 1987).
Supporting this idea, Taylor (Dulay and Burt, 1982) makes the point that
adults’ cognitive maturity allows them to deal with the abstract nature
of language better than children. This is more as adults’ cognitive
superiority than their cognitive deficiency. In line with this, Genesee
(Dulay and Burt, 1982), citing several studies indicating a superior rate
of L2 achievement in classroom studies for older learners, confirms that
older students tend to be more efficient learners than younger students.
In particular, Ellis (1987), reviewing studies of SLA conducted by among
others Remirez and Politzer, and Hoefnagel-Hohle, argues that
adolescents and adults are better L2 learners than children, in the areas
of morphology, syntax, and vocabulary. This supports the cognitive
advantage adults possess.
We turn now to another factor which may also theoretically explain
children-adults differences.
Affective Factor
The affective or emotional domain includes such factors as
empathy, self-esteem, extroversion, inhibition, imitation, anxiety, and
attitudes (Brown, 1987). One of the crucial differences between children
and adults concerning L2 learning to this theory is that they have
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different attitudes towards learning a second language. Children are
believed to be more adaptive since they have not had either positive or
negative attitude towards another language. They do not yet possess a
strong self-identity, and are, therefore, not afraid to sound ridiculous
when trying and practicing the second language (Els, et al., 1987).
Moreover, they are facilitated with strong integrative motivation due to
the need of being accepted by their playing groups in the target
language community. All of the above factors are eventually believed to
be beneficial to gain better language knowledge.
Adults, on the other hand, are very different to young children.
Having developed quite a strong self-identity, they are likely to be
hindered by an effort of defending their identity. Guiora (Brown 1987)
proposes the concept of ‘language ego’ to account for the identity a
person develops in reference to the language he or she speaks. The
language ego involves the interaction of the native language and ego
development. A person’s self-identity is bound up with his/her
language. The language ego may account for the difficulties that adults
have in learning a second language. Furthermore, as awareness of
formal rules has developed, adult learners become more afraid of
making mistakes and, consequently, cannot experiment freely.
However, since they are cognitively developed, adult L2 learners
should have capability of solving problems. This capability allows them
to analyze and then overcome the problems faced. Therefore, regarding
the problem of L2 learning, they are likely to be able to seek alternative
approaches to learning the second language by making use of their
knowledge of formal rules and conscious learning. . With respect to
affective domain, therefore, Children and adults may employ different
strategies which are not necessarily one is better than the other.
Input Factor
Linguistic input received by children and adults has also been
regarded as one of the potential factors to explain age-related
differences in rate and ultimate attainment.
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Long (1990) distinguishes between type of input and amount of
input. In terms of the type of input, Long (Long, 1990, Long and Larsen-
Freeman, 1991), citing Hatch (1977), suggests that younger learners,
especially young children receive better tuned, linguistically less
complex input with more and clearer samples from which to learn the
syntax of target language. The language used to communicate with
children is usually modified in such a way that it becomes simpler and
shorter which eventually eases them to take in the input. Furthermore,
children also enjoy opportunities for language play with their native-
speaking peers, through which they get phonological practice.
Concerning the amount of input, it is claimed that younger learners
usually receive a larger amount of input. Based on this assumption
Snow (Long, 1990) believes that adults are better at SLA on less input.
This belief, nevertheless, is doubtful for many studies reported
among others by Pavesi, Schmidt, and Swain (Long, 1990) have proved
that adult learners (and many children) with prolonged access to input
do not, in fact, attain target levels. Thus there is no direct correlation
between amount of input and second language acquisition.
Concluding Remarks
It is a matter of fact that there are age-related differences in
second language acquisition. The differences have been related to the
linguistic aspects the learner acquires, the rate of acquisition, and the
ultimate attainment. In this paper, such differences have been explained
in terms of neurological, psychomotor, cognitive, affective, and input
consideration. These theories, in general, claim that children seem to
have a greater capacity to learn a second language better than adults.
However, some reseach findings have proved that to some extent adults
appear to outperform children especially in the acquisition of
morphology and syntax. This is possibly due to adults’ cognitive
advantage. Thus, the generalization that children are better language
learners than adults is still questionable.
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Brown, H. Douglas. 1987. Principles of Language Learning and Teaching.
New Jersey: Prentice hall
Dulay, Heidi, Burt, Marina and Krashen, Stephen. 1982. Language Two.
New York: Oxford University Press
Ellis, Rod. 1986. Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Oxford:
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Els, Van, Theo, et al. 1987. Applied Linguistics and the Learning and
Teaching of Foreign Languages. Edward Arnold
Flege, e, James. 1999. “Age of Learning and Second Language Speech”, in
Birdsong, David (Ed.). Second Language Acquisition and the Critical
Period Hypothesis. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Lenneberg, E. 1967. Biological Foundations of Language. New York: John
Wiley & Sons
Long, H, Michael. 1990. “Maturational Constraints on Language
Development. Studies , in Second Language Acquisition. Vol. 12: 251
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Long, H, Michael and Larsen-Freeman, Diane. 1991. An Introduction to
Second Language Acquisition Research. New York: Longman
Stern, H, H. 1983. Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching: Oxford:
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Book
The coming of language occurs at about the same age in every healthy child throughout the world, strongly supporting the concept that genetically determined processes of maturation, rather than environmental influences, underlie capacity for speech and verbal understanding. Dr. Lenneberg points out the implications of this concept for the therapeutic and educational approach to children with hearing or speech deficits.
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