Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Krashen on the best time to learn English

Sent to the Taipei Times, March 25, 2008

Newspapers are not the best place to engage in
scholarly discussions, but I need to comment on Prof.
Kao Shih-fan's letter, "The best time for learning
English" (March 25). Prof. Kao is correct in
concluding that "the earlier the better" is not
true for second language acquisition. In earlier
stages of second language acquisition, older children
are faster than younger children, and adults are
faster than children. Prof. Kao is also correct in
noting that the research shows that those who begin as
adults typically have some accent.
I need to add these points, however: Adults and
children do not use different mechanisms for language acquisition. Even though the adult has a greater capacity for consciously understanding the rules of language, thanks to greater "abstract thinking capacities", this doesn't help very much. In my view, the research shows that nearly all of adult second language competence, like the child's, is subconscious and is acquired subconsciously, by understanding messages.
Also, adults may not achieve perfection, but they
often do very well, acquiring nearly all of the second language, including an extremely complex grammatical system and thousands of words. Many of my colleagues in Taiwan are good examples of adults who have achieved high levels of competence in English. The "imperfections" in their English are very small, e.g. an occasional grammatical slip, or a slight accent. None of them would claim that hard study was responsible for their attainment, but all have read and continue to read English a great deal, and all have heard a great deal of comprehensible English, similar to the high level English acquirers Prof. Kao has studied.
Starting English super-early is not necessary, or even
helpful, and those who start as adults can achieve
very high levels of competence, not through work and
grim determination, but through enjoying good books
and movies and getting other kinds of comprehensible

Stephen Krashen


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