The Challenge of New Languages As an Adult cover

The Challenge of New Languages As an Adult

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Given how involuntarily we adults use our primary language, it’s shocking how difficult learning new languages as an adult can be.
Although fully developed prefrontal and parietal cortices endow adults with many advantages, according to the authors, these same adult brains may hinder us from learning some aspects of language. We might, in fact, be “trying” too hard.





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The Challenge of New Languages As an Adult

Children: Master Linguists

Few of us remember how easily we learned language as children. Although the acquisition wasn’t always graceful then

—‘awry’ never sounds the same way aloud as the way I read it in my head— using our primary language as an adult is as habitual as tying shoelaces and seemingly as instinctual as smiling.

Given how involuntarily we adults use our primary language, it’s shocking how difficult learning new languages as an adult can be. The authors of a recent PLOS ONE paper postulated that the very functions we develop as our brains mature as adults may be what hinder us from mastering language the way a child does. We might, in fact, be “trying” too hard.

The Mystery of Language

The Mystery of Language

Photo courtesy of Massachusetts General Hospital and Draper Labs.

Public Domain.

Don’t Think Too Hard

Researchers have shown in previous studies that adults outperform children in tasks that require attentional focus and effort.

This is because the regions of the brain associated with these abilities—the prefrontal and parietal cortices—develop more slowly, and as a result, these abilities become stronger as we age. In other words, adult brains develop abilities that help us “try harder.” These same capabilities may, however, interfere with our capacity to learn some aspects of language as adults, like the tricky networks that underlie grammar.

Time to Experiment

To test the limits of our adult brains, the authors of “When it hurts (and helps) to try: the role of effort in language learning” tested participants on how well they learned an artificial language.

In the first experiment, participants were instructed to simply listen to the word stream. In the second experiment, participants were told to identify patterns and categories within the artificial language.

Teacher and Adult Students

Teacher and Adult Students

Image Courtesy Flickr User Mosborne01

(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Scoring the Results

The researchers stimulated “effort” in the second experiment by tasking participants with a series of learning drills.

Learners pressed buttons to indicate when they thought they had mastered a series of words or a grammar pattern. On the other hand, participants in the first group were explicitly distracted from learning.

These participants colored during the experiment. After the experiment, researchers scored both sets of participants on their ability to identify words, categories of words presented (for example: nouns), and the correct order of words in test sentences.

It’s Important to Be a Good Listener

Based on the results of the test, the participants who were told to learn the language did not outperform the participants who merely listened in all categories.

The “learners” were better than the “listeners” at identifying specific words of the artificial language, but both “learners” and “listeners” were equally successful in indicating the order patterns of words in test sentences. When it came to learning categories of words, only the listeners were significantly better than chance. The authors concluded that trying to learn may be a detriment to participants in this aspect of language learning.

Embrace Childlike Intuition

Although fully developed prefrontal and parietal cortices endow adults with many advantages (think the ability to plan, reason, and problem solve, among others),

according to the authors, these same adult brains may hinder us from learning some aspects of language.

To become masters of the murkier depths of grammar, we may want to tap into the more intuitive methodology employed by children. In the meantime, we adults will continue to struggle with the differences between ‘who’ and ‘whom,’ ‘further’ and ‘farther,’ and the best way to retain complex information presented by grammar.

Originally posted to PLOS ONE

(CC BY 2.5)