Children easily develop their speaking skills. Whilst adults learning a second language find it quite hard to obtain a quite high level of proficiency.
Yes, there are enormous differences between children learning their first language, and adult learners, but it is possible for adults to improve their speaking skills in a foreign language.
First let’s see what the strategies used by infants are when learning their mother tongue.
Children- when learning at an early age- have astonishing linguistic capabilities because of their brain plasticity, meaning that they are very receptive to learning. This ability will decline with time. Various scientists have mentioned “a window of ability” starting at the age of two.
They compared children capacity to learn grammar rules in a second language to adults learning the same foreign language. They found that the children outperformed the adults. Among other reasons was that the human brain is specifically sensitive to linguistic input, including grammar, up to puberty.
Some other researchers even suggest that this so called "critical period" closes as young as the age of five. They indicate that the ideal time to learn is between age three and five. They pointed out that the younger the learner, the more they can adopt pronunciation and recreate sounds.
Despite their differences of opinion, they all agree that it is much harder to learn a language after puberty.
So, children have a natural innate ability to learn a language. They can integrate difficult information in an unconscious way from the beginning of their development.
On the other hand, children have the incredible ability to perceive and mimic sounds and predict syllable chunks. They are also able to automatically order words within a sentence. They learn the language without being aware of it. They learn through communication and interaction with parents, teachers, and peers.
Contrastingly, adults find it difficult to use certain sounds belonging to the language they are studying, and their pronunciation is far from the native making communication at times difficult. They succumb to the vicious circle of fear which prevent them from trying to speak the language.
Unlike adults, children do not feel the need for fear.
Nevertheless - despite all this - it is possible for adults to improve their speaking skills and attain a native-like pronunciation. This highly depend on their motivation. They can also obtain a high level of grammar comprehension and dramatically improve their speaking skills.
How? You may ask. It is where a committed teacher can help.
How can a teacher help their adult students become successful at effectively learning a foreign language?
He/she needs to identify what are the problems each student faces so that she/he might be able to offer a solution to help the student develop their speaking ability.
The teacher should find out what to teach (content) and how to teach it (method).
He/she needs to know which specific skills the learner needs to develop; one thing could be the pronunciation to make the learner’s speech more intelligible so that communication is feasible as well as increasing learner’s self-confidence. Native speakers need to understand the learner’s message without much effort.
Teachers help learners increase their self-confidence.
With confidence, the learner will be more willing to keep practicing. He/ she will also learn how to self-monitor and control their own speech.
Learners should also practice intonation, rhythm, how to link words, word stress, consonants, and vowel sounds. These are concrete speaking aspects where the learner needs to be trained to improve their speaking skills.
Teachers should prepare learners to face real language problems by also teaching them contractions- they are quite common in the English language, for example-, vowel reduction, and omission of a sound or syllable when speaking (elision). Usually there is not enough practice of these in the classroom.
Teachers should also find out which concrete way they will use to deliver the content. I promote the communicative approach where I favour the interactive role of speaking and stressing meaning and context.My goal is to help my students to understand and be understood, and build their confidence when interacting with others, as well as monitor their speech. I always stress that pronunciation is just a means to an end which is to facilitate communication.
I also teach strategies that native speakers use when they face a communicative problem. When native speakers can’t find the right word that they are looking for, they just adjust their message by either using a synonym of the word they cannot find, or by asking the interlocutor for help in retrieving the word to put their message forward. They can also use body language or use gestures if it is a concrete object.
Even when learners do not feel confident with a topic, they learn how to make the most of the knowledge at their disposal and change their message to accommodate. This is called achievement strategy and it is important that learners develop it because it helps them transmit the message and make huge progress in confidence.
These are only a few strategies taken from infants learning their first language that can be applied in adults learning a foreign language; and I am happy to teach them to you if you decide to register to the conversation practice.
It is feasible to teach adults how to improve their speaking skills, but it also depends on your degree of motivation.