I’ve been thinking a lot latey about how small children acquire language so ‘seemingly’ rapidly. So I did some very crude calculations:
I think we can all agree that a 7 year-old native speaker is quite capable in the language; certainly conversationally fluent; and can understand just about everything relating to their lives and what’s important to them at that age.
So how many hours of input alone have they accumulated? I thought I’d lean towards a more conservative estimate, just to ensure I’m not exaggerating anything.
Let’s say a baby is awake for 8-9 hours/day in the first year (I have no idea if that’s correct, but it seems reasonable). And then 10-14 hours between the age of 1-7 (we’ll say 12 hours). So that’s 3.1k hours in their first year of life, and 26.3k hours during the next 6 years. We’ll call it 30k hours of time awake.
I’m not going to count it, but you could also add in the 9 months we’re in the womb (or at least some of the latter months) to the listening figure.
I’d imagine that they’re hearing (and later speaking/reading) the language for approximately 75% of their day. So that’s 22.5k hours of language input/output spread over 7 years.
They also have the absolute perfect learning environment -surrounded by native speakers, people to practice with, patient teachers, peers, perfect i+1 comprehensable input almost every day, an insane amount of motivation with an isatiable drive to learn the language to survive in the world.
As adult learners, most of us probably have a maximum of 2-4 hours/day. We also have a less than optimal learning environment with hardly any opportunity to engage native speakers. We have to make the effort to seek out learning material - nothing is given to us on a plate. And to top it all off, we’re listening to, and speaking our native language, of which the words and grammar are very deeply ingrained in our brains, and continue to be constantly reinforced for approximately 80% our day immersed in language.
So assuming 3 hours/day, (which would be a lot for most adults) that’s 7.7k hours over the same 7 year period, in a suboptimal environment, with huge interference from another language, many more distractions etc. And possibly a less flexible brain, that needs a huge amount of rewiring.
- 3 times the input/output
- Perfect learning environment
- Infinite practice opportunities
- More flexible brains (unproven, but seems likely)
- No other language interference (for decades)
- Unrivalled motivation/survival instinct
- Very interesting content provided for them on a plate.
- 1/3 of the exposure
- Suboptimal learning environment
- Very limited pratice opportunities
- Less malleable brain
- HUGE interference from another language
- Motivation issues
- Have to actively seek interesting content.
Why do we ever compare ourselves to children? If we’ve done 5 years of 3 hours/day language learning, we should technically be comparing ourselves to a kid of 1.5 years of age, and that’s just on pure immersion hours, it’s not even factoring in all the other advantages children have.
OK, so we have the advantage of using another language we’re fluent in to make sense of more complicated language, but that doesn’t add up to fluency, it just means that we can decipher complexity (particularly in texts) more easily, and that we have a grasp of more concepts.
Is ‘native level’ fluency ever realistic? When you think that an adult native speaker has racked up around 40-50k hours of immersion just by the time they’re 18, most of which came with all the benefits listed.
At 3 hours/day it would take us 40-50 years to catch up to that, and in the meantime, those natives are continuing to get even more input/output practice than we could ever dream of.
Anway, just some random thoughts about the subject. It kind of annoys me when we compare ourselves to a child at x age Vs our x number of hours of L2 study.
IMO, It’s not at all a fair comparison, and I think most of us waaaaaaaaay overestimate how good we actually are. When someone states that they’ve been “studying an hour/day for 3 years, and my level is akin to a native 6 year-old,” are they being honest there? My guess is that 6 year-old is actually quite a bit more advanced than they are, and, as it turns out, for very good reason.