Holistic child acquirers vs. analytical adult learners

Leo Selivan

One of the most widely debated issues in applied linguistics is why adults rarely reach the same level of proficiency in a second language (L2) as those who embarked on their L2 learning journey in their childhood. The notion that children are better at foreign languages enjoys widespread support among lay people too and, as a result, there has been a push to lower the age of starting foreign language instruction in a number of countries. Instead of sweeping statements such as “children are better language learners”, applied linguists, on the other hand, prefer more cautious terms such as “maturational constraints”, “sensitive period” or “the age effects” when trying to account for the reasons why the process of L2 acquisition is seemingly effortless for children but a more laborious affair after humans enter puberty.

While the decline in language learning ability is not disputed, there is no agreement on what causes it. Originally proposed in the 1960s, the Critical Age Hypothesis suggests that the optimum period for language acquisition is the first 10-12 years of life. When a child enters puberty there is a gradual decline in language learning ability. This particularly concerns the acquisition of grammatical patterns and is said to be a result of biological changes in the brain. According to the hypothesis, usually referred to today as the Age Factor, a child’s brain is like a sponge which absorbs new information and knowledge. After the brain matures it begins to lose its plasticity and consequently our ability to learn a new language diminishes.

However, recent psycholinguistic evidence sheds new light on the reasons why child learners pick up languages more effortlessly and suggests that the phenomenon can be explained not only by the biological maturation but rather “profound differences in how children and adults engage with the world” (Wray, 2012). These differences fall into several categories: contextual, cognitive and social. Therefore it would be more accurate to refer to the process not as the Age Factor, but rather as the Age Factors.

One research study which clearly highlights these factors was conducted by the cognitive psychologist Deb Roy - you may have seen his TED talk (click here). Roy recorded all the interactions between his newly born son and his caregivers - himself, his wife and their nanny - using state-of-the-art video and audio equipment installed strategically in every room in their house. The analysis of around 100,000 hours of video recordings he had accumulated revealed a close relationship between his infant child’s language development and the caregivers’ speech. Specifically, the more frequently a lexical item (word or multi-word sequence) occurred in the linguistic input the child was exposed to, the sooner he was able to produce the word in his own speech. Furthermore, using sophisticated motion tracking software, Roy and his research team at MIT were able to find a strong correlation between the locations around the house where words were spoken most often (for example, ‘water’ in the kitchen) and where the child first uttered them or, in Deb Roy’s terms, where ‘word births’ occurred.

The main takeaway from this remarkable experiment is that language development is closely linked to and grounded in the child’s everyday activity, and that contextually constrained words - words that occurred predominantly in the same location or in the context of the same activities, games and routines - are acquired more easily. But Deb Roy’s study involved a first language acquirer. Let’s look at studies that investigated L2 learning.

Long before linguists availed themselves of the cutting edge technology, such as the one Deb Roy used, observations of child learners were carried out with the help of a tape recorder, and paper and pencil. One such long-term observation was conducted by American linguist Lily Wong Fillmore in the 1970s. Herself a child of immigrants, Fillmore was interested in the process of L2 acquisition among a group of Spanish-speaking immigrant children whose parents had moved to the USA from Mexico.

One child, who stood out from the rest, was five-year old Nora. Despite being the youngest in the group Nora outpeformed her peers by the end of the study period.

While analysing the data gathered during the study the researcher identified the strategies that Nora had used which made her successful. What became obvious was that in addition to the effective use of social strategies - Nora actively sought interaction with native speaking peers - she relied on recurring multi-word sequences which she picked up during her interaction, and used them whenever possible (not always appropriately) in her conversation. This was in the 1970s, long before we started referring to these sequences as lexical chunks. Fillmore notes that the muti-word sequences - or chunks - were “learnable and memorable by virtue of being embedded in current, interest-holding activities”. This conclusion resonates with the finding of Deb Roy’s team that ‘word births’ - which can be easily extended to ‘chunk births’ - are embedded into the context of natural everyday activities. The assertion finds further support in a more recent study of Japanese pre-school children (Perera, 2001), which shows that learners first memorise whole expressions before extracting ‘rules’ from them and making them their own. One of the things which makes child learners successful is the tendency to incorporate the turns of phrase they heard said by adults or peers in the course of interaction and manipulate them to produce their own novel utterances. Once again, linguistic and social process are closely connected. Are these joint processes still at play as we get older?

Unlike younger learners, older, more cognitively mature learners tend to rely on their analytical skills rather than more holistic processes characteristic of younger learners. One of the active proponents of chunk learning, also known as the Lexical Approach, Hugh Dellar (2004) recounts how students often probe into the meaning of a single word in a lexical chunk, which may not always contribute to the understanding of a whole chunk, nor ability to use it effectively, for example rip in I got ripped off. I’m sure you have observed similar situations where adult students were more keen to attend to the parts than the whole in a somewhat misguided belief that analysing individual components would aid their understanding and learning. Some examples that come to mind are students’ questions about ‘rid’ in get rid of, ‘stand’ in I can’t stand him and “run” in He is going to run for President.

Not only do older learners tend to move into analysis too soon, they are guided by linguistic representations they formed when acquiring L1, which help learn certain aspects of a new language, but more often than not, hinder their ability to express themselves in a natural and grammatically correct way.  They seem to adopt a “lego approach to language learning” (Wray, 2008) by breaking the language input into little bricks (instead of larger building blocks) and then trying to recombine them by applying rules.

Could this be an attempt to compensate for the loss of brain plasticity by deploying more developed analytical skills? The domain of language learning clearly requires a more gestalt approach, i.e. looking at the whole before studying its parts, at least in the early stages. How can we encourage more holistic chunk learning among adolescents and adults? And is it really possible to emulate the environment of a playground, in which children pick up words and chunks, in the confines of a classroom

One of the leading experts on formulaic language (i.e. chunks) Alison Wray from the University of Cardiff thinks that it would be hard to counter the adults’ tendency to break down chunks instead of absorbing them as unanalysed wholes like children do (remember the sponge metaphor from earlier on?). So where does it leave us? It seems there is little we can do about the way older learners process and analyse language. However, we can make some changes to how new material is presented and practised in class. In my talk and follow-up workshop I will explore how we can provide more chunk-based input in the classroom and help learners of all ages to focus on the big picture before dealing with how small parts work.


Dellar, H., & Walkley, A. (2004). Innovations Upper-intermediate - A course in natural English. Boston, MA: Thomshon Heinle.

Perera, N.S. (2001). The role of prefabricated language in young children’s second language acquisition. Bilingual Research Journal 25(3), 327–356

Roy, B., Frank, M., & Roy, D. (2012). Relating activity contexts to early word learning in dense longitudinal data. In Proceedings of the 34th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society. Sapporo, Japan.

Wong-Fillmore, L. (1976). The second time around: Cognitive and social strategies in second language acquisition. Unpublished PhD thesis (Stanford University).

Wray, A. (2008). The puzzle of language learning: From child's play to ‘linguaphobia’. Language Teaching, 41(2), 253-271.