If at First You Don’t Succeed … Don’t Try Again?

If at First You Don’t Succeed … Don’t Try Again?

At least don’t try too hard, not when trying to learn a second language. MIT’s recent study on adult language acquisition shows that perhaps trying again and again and again doesn’t really help adults attempting to learn a second language. It’s common linguistic knowledge that children are able to more easily learn new languages than adults, due to the course of their brain development. This is because children’s brains are more controlled by a “procedural memory” system that helps children “absorb” information. This type of learning is a watch-and-do type of learning, where children observe and experience things and then take that information and build a process in their brain as a response to the information they received. This type of learning accounts for children learning to speak, walk, play, ride a bike, dance, and pretty much anything else they can learn and easily “catch on to” in the years leading up to puberty.

However, as children age, the brain begins to be controlled more and more by a different learning process—one that takes new information and tries to fit it into existing knowledge and processes. This is extremely useful at this stage of life, since the majority of learning done after the childhood years builds on knowledge that was gained early on. However, this learning process can be a major stumbling block for adults trying to learn brand-new things—such as a new sport, game, or language. The phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” takes on new meaning, as MIT’s study results indicate that in order to learn the trick, the “dog” needs to revert back to a different type of learning process that it gave up shortly after its puppy years.

What is the impact of these brain characteristics on adult language acquisition? MIT study author Amy Finn says it’s unclear whether there’s anything adults can do to change the way they learn. Some linguists wonder if adults could more easily acquire language while completing an unrelated challenging task (which could “distract” the brain from interfering in the language learning process). Others are investigating a way to “turn off” certain areas of the brain using drugs or a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, which could help adults learn more like children learn. More research is needed; however, Finn claims that adults can “learn language functionally… but you’ll never sound like a native speaker.”

See the report on MIT’s study in Time Magazine here.

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