Why Adults Learn Languages Faster Than Children (A Data-Driven Post)

Why adults learn foreign languages faster than children

I like to collect all sorts of nonsensical sayings about language learning. There is an overabundance of them, but one of my favorites is: "children learn quickly."

"Nonsense?!" you might say with indignation. "Don't all children speak well at a young age?"

No.

I don't think we should be putting on a pedestal the mental achievements of a being for whom one of the more impressive skills is the ability to fart and sneeze simultaneously.

But let's not rely on guesses and assumptions. It's time to put on some "scientific" trunks and dive into the sea of scientific research to find out what the real pace of children's learning is.


Why Adults Learn Languages Faster


SIZE OF VOCABULARY IN CHILDREN AGED 1-7 years


To be able to count anything, we need to start with basic data and look at the average vocabulary of children aged 12 months (when they start to say the first words) up to the age of 7.

Due to the availability of data on this subject, I will use the numbers given for an average American child. I think that these numbers will still be a decent reflection of the average child for other languages, especially considering that English is one of the most lexically developed languages in the world.

DEFINITION OF WORDS

Remember that in linguistics, there is no single and strict definition of a word. Depending on the data, one word is, well, just one word (a unique selection and order of letters). In other studies, the word and all its inflections are counted as one word. For example, according to this classification, the words "jump," "jumped," "jumping," etc. are treated as one word. If you see a particularly large number in this table, it means that each word is counted separately.

The other data pool describes the average expressive vocabulary of children as follows:

  • Children speak their first words around the 12th month. Some children need a little more time - about 16 months. However, it is believed that the later time horizon is still within the norm.
  • At 18 months, children usually use about 50 words (but we don't worry too much unless they have less than 10-20).
  • At 24 months, children usually have expressive vocabulary of 200-300 words (but we don't worry too much unless they have less than 50).
  • At the age of 3, children can have 500 to 1100 words in their vocabulary.
  • At 5-7 years, children have a vocabulary of 3000-5000 words.

SIZE OF VOCABULARY IN CHILDREN - EXCEPTIONS

Of course, it is worth remembering that this is average data. Depending on the child's intellectual predisposition and the upbringing, he or she may develop faster or slower.

For example, a child in the ninetieth percentile at 16 months knows the same number of words as a 26-month-old child in the tenth percentile.

Why this range?

There is at least one study (Hart and Risley, 2006), which suggests that the size of the vocabulary of a child aged three is closely related to the number of conversations that adults have with this child. Interestingly, the differences in language development and IQ in such children were still visible at the age of nine!

It is, of course, only a curiosity for anyone interested, especially current and future parents.

Let's return to our example. We already have the most important data; now, it is time for some calculations to prove that adults learn languages faster than children.

 

How Many Words a Day Does an Average Child Learn?



As an example, let's choose a 5-year-old child. And not just any child! Suppose he is little John von Neumannand he already knows 6,000 words - a number that is well above the average for this age.

Of course, let us assume that the child of this age also has decent grammar and can put these words together quite appropriately.

This extraordinarily well-developed child had about 1,825 days from birth, or 1,460 days since pronouncing the first word, to master 6,000 words.

His average learning pace is therefore:

  • 3.29 words per day (from birth)
  • 4.11 words per day (from 12 months)

How do these numbers make you feel?

I can only assume that "Well, four words a day. Respect. Hats off. How do they do it?!" is not the first thought to cross your mind. There is nothing impressive about these numbers. Instead, they show one thing: young children learn very slowly.

If you can stand the deadly pace of learning 5 words per day, you'll do better than our wise, exemplary child. It's heartwarming, eh?

Read more: You Don’t Learn Languages Like a Child – Start Learning Grammar and Vocabulary.


The Pace of Learning in Older Children


It is worth remembering that for every person, also for a child, the so-called snowball effect applies.


The snowball effect states that the greater your knowledge (especially in a given field), the faster you can learn.


It means, more or less, that the older the child is, the more new words will be learned per day on average. Many sources say that later in adolescence, this number ranges between 10-14 words (Lipsett / Mehrabian and Owens numbers are from Language Development - An Introduction; Robert E. Owens, Jr .; Allyn and Bacon; 1996).

I will repeat my question: Is such a pace in any way crazy and exceeds the capabilities of an adult? Surely not.

Remember that the snowball effect also applies to you - the more words you know, the faster you will learn more. Besides, as an adult, you have a whole range of attributes and skills unavailable to children:

All these factors make you a real harvester of knowledge!


Adults Learn Languages Faster - Summary 


Let it be said again - adults learn languages faster than children!

I have witnessed incredible language acquisitions of people who thought that they could not learn quickly (or that it was impossible), and who within 10 months reached the level of B1 / B2 in the language of their choice (you can read more about it here).

Such a pace of learning exceeds the abilities of even the most gifted children. I think that if we would like to learn something from children, it would be to be persistent in pursuing a goal.

I hope that moving forward you will be more optimistic about your abilities!


How To Prepare For a Foreign Language Interviews And Ace It

 

You keep looking nervously at your phone. It’ll be alright; you keep telling yourself. Still, your body doesn’t seem very convinced. Your palms leave sticky stains of sweat on the tabletop in a final cry for help.

Just one more leap and your dream job will be yours. But what to do to make this leap count? Is it even worth making it?

Let’s dig into numbers before I show you how to prepare for a foreign language interview.

How Much Is Knowing a Foreign Language Worth?

 

Learning languages has a lot of benefits. Among others, it can:

  • improve your memory
  • increase your attention span
  • increase your verbal and non-verbal intelligence
  • boost your problem-solving skills

The list goes on and on. What’s more, it turns out that it is also a great decision money-wise!

 

Prepare For A Foreign Language Interview

 

” Assuming an average starting salary of almost $45,000, a 2% “language bonus” average over 40 years, and also a 1% raise annually, you’d have an extra $67,000 by the time you retire. Since you can learn a new language (or two) pretty quickly, that’s a pretty good investment of time “.

 

Source: The Economist

Of course, not all languages have the same value. German and French are worth $128,000 and $77,000, respectively, compared to $51,000 for Spanish.

Do you know Japanese or Russian? In that case, you can count on much more!

Now that we’ve established that knowing a language is worth something let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of acing the foreign language interview.

The first station? Mindset.

 

How to Prepare for a Foreign Language Interview – the Right Mindset

 

I have never bought corny slogans like “be yourself.” That’s a lazy way of thinking. If I were a pimply, adolescent and were after a girl out of my league, such advice would be useless.

If the girl I like the counterpart of my dream company, then I don’t want to be a pimply loser. Nor should you.

Be ready to step up your game. Trust me; I know a thing or two about language interviews. I’ve been on both sides of the table. I have interviewed and have been interviewed dozens of times in 5 languages.

The first thing you need to know is that the pre-interview preparation is what matters. No amount of luck will shelter you from the unwillingness to put in some hours beforehand.

All the tips are ordered chronologically for your convenience. From the ones, you should use days before the interview to the ones which will be useful hours before it starts.

 

How To Prepare For A Foreign Language Interview – Strategies

1) Learn Answers To The Most Common Interview Questions

It never ceases to amaze me. There is an infinite number of questions an interviewer might ask. Yet, these are the ones they tend to ask the most:

 

  • 1. Tell me about yourself
  • 2. What do you know about or company?
  • 3. What are your strengths and weaknesses?
  • 4. Why did you leave your last job?
  • 5. What is the biggest challenge you have encountered so far?
  • 6. What do you do in your current role?
  • 7. Why would you like to work for us?
  • 8. Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?
  • 9. What kind of qualifications do you have?
  • 10. Why would you like to work for us? 

 

Yes, that’s it. Preparing answers to just these ten questions should drastically boost your chance of getting your dream job.

Of course, the chance is that some companies have slightly different questions sets. If you don’t want to leave anything to chance, visit:

 

The website gathers all kinds of information about different companies – interview questions, salaries, and so on.

Once you prepare the answers, rehearse them aloud. Do it as many times as necessary. 

How many times exactly?

It depends on your current language level, of course. The rule of thumb is that you should be able to recite these questions without any hesitation and unnecessary pauses. And there is a good reason for that. If you stutter in the stress-free conditions, at your home, imagine what will happen when the stress kicks in during the interview.

You will crash and burn.

 

2) Learn All the Basic Pleasantries

Imagine eating a delicious cake. Your palate experiences a surge of exquisite sensations. What bliss! But then the last bite turns out to be a lump of dung. How do you think you would recall this event?

Negatively doesn’t even come close to describing this experience. But how does it relate to a language interview?

Many candidates are relatively well-prepared when it comes to answering the questions. Very often they don’t know how to exchange everyday pleasantries. 

Why is this small element of an interview so important? Because it’s the end of a particular experience.

The peak-end rule says that: If an interviewer sneezes, know how to say “bless you” in your target language. If he says, “thank you for your time and have a wonderful day,” know how to say “likewise.”

 

People exhibit better memory for more intensely emotional events than less intensely emotional events (…), the atypicality of extreme memories can lead people to believe those extreme moments are representative of the “set” being judged.

If an interviewer sneezes, know how to say “bless you” in your target language. If he says, “thank you for your time and have a wonderful day,” know how to say “likewise.”

 

3) Prepare Difficult Phrases To Trick The Interviewer

 

Prepare For A Foreign Language Interview

 

This step requires greater sophistication, but it can be, without any doubt, called the secret sauce of acing the foreign language interviews.

I came up with this sneaky strategy years ago and had battle-tested it many times. Its implementation will immediately make you stand out from the crowd.

Prepare at least ten phrases/idioms which are quite sophisticated. Next, repeat them aloud in the sentences until they become your second nature.

For example, instead of saying:

“I also think that …”, try saying, “Having said that, I would also like to add that … “.

Boring? Maybe. Does it sound more impressive? Hell yeah, it does!

 

The Purpose of Using Difficult Phrases

The purpose of this strategy is very simple. Such phrases are easily memorable. They distinguish you from others. They will help to artificially boost your potential language level, regardless of how high it is currently.

What’s more, it doesn’t matter if you talk with a native speaker or not. If the interviewer, who is a non-native speaker, doesn’t understand some phrase you say, 99 out of 100, he won’t ask you to explain it.

Why would he? That’d be humiliating! He’s the guy who should know this stuff! If you heard a guy saying:

“I don’t want to sound like a philodox* but I would dare to say that… “

Would you ask him what a philodox means? I guess not. If I didn’t know what the word means, I would just start thinking about why someone would fill some poor dogs**.

And what if you talk to a native speaker?
Even better, in this case, they will know what you said and would probably be in awe because of your fantastic language skills.
* From the Greek philos, meaning love, and doxa, meaning glory, a philodox is a dogmatic person who is especially fond of his/her own opinions
** Phil dox? You know, it sounds like “fill dogs,” right? Anyone…? (Walks away disappointed). It was funny in my head!
Bear in mind that the example mentioned above is a little bit over the top since it’s a very rare word.

 

4) Prepare Difficult Grammar Constructions

Prepare a few sentences with more advanced grammar constructions that you don’t use normally and rehearse the hell out of them.

Try to build sentences which are as universal as it gets. You have to make sure you can use them at (almost) any point during the interview.

 

5) Determine Your Strengths and Weaknesses To Dominate The Interviewer

I admit. “Dominate” sounds somehow wrong. I don’t suggest that you pee on your opponent to mark your territory and show who is the alpha wolf in this herd.
Every language learner has one language competence which prevails. Be it listening or speaking since these are the ones which count the most during the interview.
By knowing which of them is the strong suit, you can direct the interview into the direction desired by you.

Listening as the Main Strength

If you are a better listener, try to limit your speaking time by asking questions.
For example, the interviewer asks you, “Where do you see yourself in 3 years?”. You give a short answer and then smoothly parry with, “Actually, I’ve been wondering… I would love to stay in this company as long as it’s only possible but can you tell me what other employees think about it?”.
You nod enthusiastically as you listen and then ask another question, “So what do they like the most about it?”.
People love to talk about themselves so you can try to ask the interviewer about his personal experience in this company.
Just a word of warning. Don’t be creepy and socially awkward. You should try to come across as an enthusiastic and inquisitive person. Not a nosy weirdo.

Speaking as the Main Strength

If you’re more of the silver-tongued devil, you should minimize the speaking time of the interviewer. Try to give lengthy answers to every question.

And don’t worry about talking too much. It’s a verification of your language level, not an ordinary interview in your native tongue. Dazzle the poor bastard with your linguistic prowess!

Example
“Hi. It is X from the Y company. Am I speaking with Mr. X?
“Yes, speaking”
“I am calling to verify your language level. Shall we start?”
“Of course. Let me introduce myself and say a few words about my previous job/life / other fillers.”
You can’t talk all the time. But at least try to minimize the chance of not understanding the interviewer.
And if you’re feeling unsure about the question? Then you can always salvage yourself by posing a question back.
“So you would like to know……is that correct?”
Just ask the interview to reformulate the question, and you should be fine.

 

6) Immerse Yourself In A Language Prior To The Interview

Don’t dive headfirst into the dark water. At least dip your fingers first! Warm up before the actual interview by surrounding yourself with your target language!

For example:

  • Listen to some music in the morning
  • Watch a movie or listen to the radio
  • Talk to yourself or some other person in your target language

I would suggest doing it for at least 1 hour. But obviously, everything depends on how much free time you have on your hands.

 

7) Bonus Advice: Apply For Other Positions With Your Target Language

If you’ve found your dream job at some company, it would be a shame if you failed you just because stress ate you up.

That’s why you can put some extra effort and apply for other positions with your target language. Sure, you don’t want to work in other companies but, at least, you’ll get some extra practice!

 

How To Prepare For A Foreign Language Interview – Summary

 

As you can see, acing the foreign language interview is not about luck or simply having a perfect command of your target language.

It’s more about having the right attitude, being prepared and using the right strategies. Once you understand it the world is your oyster!