If you have tried to learn a new language, you know how challenging it can be. You may also know children who are twelve and already fluent in two or more languages. This is because adults and children have different strengths when it comes to learning a new language.
If a young child lives in a foreign country for a few months, it is possible that they will begin to speak like a native speaker. Why is this? The structure of our brain plays a crucial role within the ‘sensitive period’ for learning language. This sensitive period is believed to end around adolescence. A young brain has the ability to analyse sounds and build a set of rules regarding those sounds.
The neural circuits that build these rules allow young minds to construct words and sentences through the sounds they have processed. Once these language structures have been fully established in adulthood, it’s harder to build a new one in order to learn a language.
Neuroscientists, and psychologists at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, have now found a new factor regarding language difficulties in which adults face.
You would assume the harder you try, the easier it would be to learn language. However, when adults try to learn a new language, highly developed cognitive skills get in the way. It was found that the harder one tried to learn a language, the worse they were in terms of deciphering that language’s morphology.
Amy Finn lead this study and explained, “We found that effort helps you in most situations, for things like figuring out what the units of language that you need to know are, and basic ordering of elements. But when trying to learn morphology, at least in this artificial language we created, it’s actually worse when you try.”
The experiment consisted of nine nonsense words, each containing two syllables. These words fell into three categories based on the consonant order and vowel sounds. Each participant listened to the artificial language for approximately ten minutes.
Each group listened to the exact same recording, but were given different instructions. The first group was instructed to listen to the language, but not over-analyse what they were hearing. They were given the option to do a puzzle or colour, so that their full attention was not on the language as they listened. The other group was told to try their hardest to identify the words that they were hearing.
Both groups were successful in terms of word segmentation, which is taking information and putting it into word units. Although both groups did well, the group that focused harder did slightly better. Both groups also did well in terms of word ordering. This required participants to choose between two options, choosing a word sequence that they had previously heard before.
The final task focused on language morphology. Researchers played a three-word sentence that included a word in which they never heard before. This foreign word fit into one of three categories. When participants were asked whether or not the word was in the right place, the subjects that paid closer attention actually did worse.
These findings support the theory that some aspects of language are learnt through procedural memory, while others are learnt through declarative memory. Procedural memory entails tasks that are performed without any need for conscious awareness.
“It really is likely to be the procedural memory program that is important for learning these complicated morphological aspects of language. In fact, when you use the declarative memory system, it doesn’t enable you, it harms you,” Finn says.
Finn explained that further research would be done to see whether or not adults could overcome the obstacles experienced when attempting to learn a new language. She is now testing the effects associated with transcranial magnetic stimulation. This will essentially ‘turn off’ the prefrontal cortex in adults.
She also plans to perform research when adults are distracted, while a new language is heard. This future research will show whether or not certain roadblocks can be removed in terms of adults learning new languages.