Who Learns Languages Best and How Long Does it Take? (with Professor Patsy Lightbown)

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How do people learn languages? Is it the same for kids and adults? How learns faster? How long does it take? For our first podcast of 2019, Ross interviews second language acquisition expert researcher and author of How Languages Are Learned, Professor Patsy Lightbown, to find out more.

Who Learns Languages Best and How Long Does it Take? (with Professor Patsy Lightbown) - Transcript

Ross Thorburn: Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the TEFL Training Institute Podcast. This week, we have an interview with Patsy Lightbown, who is currently professor emerita at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada as well as being most famous for being a second-language acquisition researcher and for the fantastic book, "How Languages are Learned."

In today's podcast, we talked about language learning and specifically looked into the differences between how children learn languages and how adults learn languages. I hope you enjoy the interview.

Ross: Hello. Thank you. Thanks so much for coming on.

Patsy Lightbown: Hi. Thanks.

Ross: Let's start off by talking about how people regardless of whether they are kids or adults, how do people in general learn a language?

Patsy: I would agree with most people that language learning begins when people encounter language that they understand and that they are interested in understanding. In other words, the whole idea, the comprehensible input is the beginning of language strikes me as pretty plausible.

There has to be a reason for learning. One reason for learning is to understand something that you hear or try to read. Some people have long-term goals when they start to learn a language. If you don't trigger a short-term desire to understand at the moment, then the long-term goals are hard to pursue.

That's one of the things about language learning that we sometimes lose sight of in the classroom that people need to have immediate goals, immediate needs and interests, understanding, and communicating what they understand, or asking questions about it.

I guess that's how language learning starts. Clearly, language learning is a long, long road. That's another thing we sometimes lose sight of, certainly in formal education the idea that people can reach high levels of competence in a language, that they are exposed to for an hour or so a day.

It's also pretty misguided. What I always say is the classroom language teaching is a starting point, but what you really need to learn in the classroom is how to keep learning outside the classroom.

Ross: Is this the idea of creating learner autonomy? Almost that the language classroom is giving students the skills to learn a language rather than actually the knowledge of learning.

Patsy: Exactly. It seems to me what the classroom has to do is to prepare students to keep learning by helping them to learn strategies for understanding, and strategies for understanding what they hear, or what they try to read, strategies for making themselves understood to people outside the classroom.

Of course, now the opportunities for coming in contact with another language, the opportunities are so much greater than they were in a previous era of different kinds of communication technologies.

Now there's really no excuse for not finding ways of using the language outside the classroom. You don't have to actually live in the place where the language is spoken. You can encounter the language by using technology.

You have to be motivated, and you have to have the confidence. That's another thing that the classroom can build.

It's the confidence that you can keep learning outside, that you can approach another individual, or that you can approach a resource, and get something from it, that you have the strategies and the skills to learn from the encounters, that you can have either in person or online through technology.

Ross: How much does that happen then? In my experience, most course books don't really do that. Most teachers, definitely being guilty of this myself, probably see the classroom as the beginning and the end of language learning and teaching rather than just really a starting point.

Patsy: That's a really interesting question because, of course, like everything having to do with language teaching and learning, the variations in the answer to that question probably equal the number of classrooms there are in the world.

Certainly, also it would depend on the age of the learners, and things like that. If it's not happening, it ought to be happening, I could put it that way. I can't say that it's happening more often, but I believe it should be.

I don't know why it wouldn't be, but when you started out this piece of our conversation saying that unfortunately teachers do tend to believe that the classroom is the be-all and end-all, I think students may be convinced on that as well.

I'm arguing that if teachers are not encouraging students to continue learning outside the classroom, then that should be a priority in teacher education that we say to teachers, "Prepare your students to learn outside the classroom."

If we turn to the research domain, that would back that up. You may be aware that I've written some about phenomenon in cognitive psychology called "Transfer Appropriate Learning" or "Transfer Appropriate Processing."

The idea behind that is that when we learn something, we learn not just the something that we are trying to learn, but we also internalize features and factors that are present in the environment where we're learning it.

If all of our learning takes place not just in a classroom, but within the traditional definition of a classroom where teachers ask questions and students answer, then we're not preparing people to continue using language in other environments where they do the questioning.

For example, or where the opportunities for using the language are very different from those of a classroom environment.

Transfer Appropriate Processing would tell us that we need to get students experiences in the classroom that prepare them for using language outside the classroom.

It's the thing such as making the language that they are exposed to, challenging, age appropriate, interesting, and all of those things that sometimes get lost in classroom instruction.


Ross: Let's talk about some of the differences between young learners and adults. How do those groups learn languages differently? Maybe, also, what might be similar between the two groups?

Patsy: It seems to me that one of the biggest differences between child learners and older learners is that child learners are more willing to accept that they're learning. They're learning all sorts of things.

We're talking here about a classic foreign language learning situation where the students are in a class where now we are learning English or now we are learning French. Now, we are learning science, math, or history.

Young learners are more accepting of that. It's like a suspension of disbelief. You're not sitting in the classroom saying, "Why am I learning this?" You're sitting in the classroom saying, "I'm learning this because it's the English class. That's why I'm here." When you're dealing with older learners, I think the issue of why I'm learning this becomes more important to them.

For one thing, they don't have as much time to lose as children do. Not time to lose, but they want to see results. The evidence is that older learners can learn more quickly than younger learners in a classroom setting. We've got lots of research to show that.

Adults are certainly more able to use their intentional or explicit knowledge because they have more of it. They're able to build on it more than children can.

Probably the most important thing is that adults don't have the time to learn something that's not important on the grounds that eventually it will be important, whereas I think children are more forgiving, and more willing to do what the teacher says.

As students get older, they feel the pressure of time. I think that's especially true for people who are in second-language learning situations, as contrasted to foreign language learning situations.

It depends on what their goals are. If they are learning the language, so let's say that they can travel or go and study abroad, then they also feel the pressure of time. Time is the thing that older learners have less of because there are so many other things that they have to do with their time.

Ross: There must be a limit to that, though in that maybe adults are faster in some settings. I've read research on the critical age hypothesis. If you start learning a second language beyond a certain age, you'll never going to be able to sound like a native speaker.

It's very, very difficult, whereas if you are immersed in a language before a certain age, then almost everyone ends up learning the language to the level of a native speaker.

Patsy: Then you've also hit on the idea of becoming like or sounding like a native speaker. I think people have finally got over that. I hope. I'd like to think so. That is not the goal of most language teaching and learning.

Sounding like a native speaker is not something that most language students aspire to. What they aspire to is reaching a level of proficiency that allows them to make themselves understood and to understand what they need to understand without aspiring to sound like native speakers.

You can say the older learner learns more quickly, but may reach a certain plateau in some aspects of language learning. There are so many successful older learners. Focusing on what older learners can't do is pretty self-defeating.

I think we need to focus more on what they can do and emphasize the remarkable success of many older learners if they are given the right instruction.

If realistic expectations are set or how much time they need, that's part of the problem that people think they can, not just because of commercial ads, learn French in six months. People are unrealistic in their expectations of what they can accomplish in a very limited time.

Adults sometimes get frustrated because they've been going to their evening class three days a week for six months, and they still can't do this x, y and z.

Part of our job as teachers and as researchers is to reassure people that they are learning and that they will continue to learn that. Just because they have been studying for six months doesn't mean that they should be now fluent and competent in the language. It takes a long time.

That's one thing we definitely know about language learning. It takes a long time to acquire high levels of proficiency, and it takes a long time of re-using the language in a great variety of situations.

If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, you'll get very good at that thing, but you need to be able to use language in a great variety of settings in order to get good at using it in a variety of settings. All of that takes time, more time than people ever realized.

One of the biggest limitations for adults is not their intellectual, or cognitive, or whatever language learning ability that would allow them to acquire another language, but just the amount of time they have to devote to it.

Ross: It's interesting. In my own experience learning Chinese, I found a few years ago that my Chinese was quite good conversationally, and then I moved to a Chinese company and started attending meetings that were in Chinese. It was so difficult.

I found I could hardly understand anything and they're all this vocabulary about costs, and turnover, and profits. There was so much of it. It was incredibly difficult to understand even though I thought I had the background and the grammar, but in terms of the vocabulary it was so difficult.

Patsy: That's really interesting. I'm sure, again, this is one of those things that we've talked about for years but when Jim Cummins first started talking about the difference between basic interpersonal communication skills and cognitive academic language proficiency.

People were shocked that he said that it would take children five to seven years to achieve cognitive academic language proficiency, even though it would take them only, maybe, one or two years to achieve this interpersonal communication skill.

Over and over again the research demonstrates that it takes years. It takes not just the passage of time chronologically, but the actual engagement in different kinds of activities and in different contexts, because it goes back to the transfer appropriate processing.

You have to have the experience of a particular kind of language use in order to be prepared to use the language in that way outside the classroom.

Ross: That was Professor Patsy Lightbown. If you want to find out more about her work, you can go to her website. There's a link on our links page. You might also want to check out two of her books. One of them is called "Focus On Content-Based Language Teaching" from Oxford University Press, or "How Languages Are Learned" co-authored with Nina Spada.

Hope you enjoyed the podcast and see you again next time.