Sunday, September 27, 2009

Types of Language Learners

Individuals can be either sequential or simultaneous language learners. The purpose of this blog is to describe the differences between sequential and simultaneous language learners.

Sequential Language Learners
Sequential language learners are those individuals that learn one language first and second or more languages after the first language have been established (usually after age three). An example of a sequential language learner is a child that learns Spanish at home as an infant and learns English once he/she goes off to school. Individuals that move to a new country and learn a new language are also sequential language learners.

Simultaneous Language Learners
Simultaneous language learners are those individuals that learned 2 or more languages at the same time. Simultaneous language learners are usually those individuals that grew up with 2 or more languages at home. This process occurs during infancy while the child is learning language for the first time. Most of the time, these children have at least one parent that speaks more than one language and/or lives in a community where more than one language is spoken. For example, the child has a nanny that speaks a different language with him or her.

Which learning type is best?
Young children can learn multiple languages easily because their brains are wired to do so. Young children’s brains are forming and characterized by plasticity that makes learning easier. Within ages 0 to 3 most children learn the basics of the language or languages present in their environment. At age 3, most children are able to communicate successfully in the language or languages used at home. After age 3, children continue to learn a language, but it is more about learning new vocabulary, expanding the complexity of their sentences and ideas and improving the pronunciation of sounds and words. Since the brain is open to acquire languages at an early age, simultaneous language learning is ideal.

This does not mean that learning languages in a sequential manner is not a good idea. Preschool and school age children continue to develop their brains, and they can easily learn a second language as well. Their brains continue to show high degrees of plasticity, which allows them to learn easily. The best example of sequential language learners is children that attend a second language immersion program where they learn a new language. In these immersion programs, typically all the school activities take place in the second language that the children are learning. The children are exposed to the new language all day while at school. When the children go home, they continue to speak the language spoken at home and/or the community. These children are usually successful at learning a second language because they are exposed to that language a significant amount of time each day. They are also successful because they are learning the new language the same way they learned the first language, through everyday meaningful activities.

Adults, on the other hand, do not have the same brain plasticity that children do. This makes learning a second language a harder task. In Spanish, there is a popular saying that refers to this issue, “Loro Viejo no aprende a hablar”/ “An old parrot does not learn to talk”. Although this saying is not 100% true, it is harder for adults to learn a second language because their brains do not have the plasticity and flexibility to do so. For instance, adult brains cannot perceive foreign language sounds not present in their language as easy as the brains of children can.

Either way of language learning, sequential or simultaneous, takes a strong commitment in order to be successful in the endeavor of raising bilingual children. It also takes having the desire and the interest to learn a new language on the part of the learner. Parents that make the commitment to teach their children more than one language and stick to this commitment are giving their children a cultural and linguistic gift that will probably open unimaginable opportunities in the future for their children. I can assure you, all the hard work and effort will be worth it at the end!

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