Dive into the Science of Language Learning to Accelerate Your Studies
Researchers have found some cool stuff that can make studying a language easy, fun and effective.
The implications of this research will help you view the process of learning a foreign language in a new light and speed up the process.
Better buckle up, because these ideas will make you want to jump right out of your seat!
- What We Should Know About the Brain and Learning a Language
- How Language Learning Science Can Help You Acquire a Language Efficiently
What We Should Know About the Brain and Learning a Language
Are you saddled with the thought, “Ugh, I’m twenty years too late for this language learning party?” Think of yourself too old to learn new tricks? Maybe you’ve heard about the “critical period” (from early childhood to adolescence), during which language is said to be soaked up like a sponge. Proponents of this theory would say if you’re not in this age range, learning a new tongue becomes an uphill battle.
Well I’ve got news for you, the hill is not as steep as people think. Neuroscientists are finding out just how plastic the brain is. It’s built for lifelong learning. Meaning, it doesn’t just fossilize after a certain age. It retains the ability to create, mend or restructure neural connections throughout life—which is what learning a new language, on a physical level, essentially is.
Your noggin is not static—it’s awesomely dynamic. It can change, reorganize and form new connections all throughout adulthood as a result of learning in general, not just language.
Scientists administered MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and electrophysiology tests on new recruits at the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy (folks beyond the so-called “critical period”) before commencing their language studies. They also administered tests on a control group that also studied, but not languages. After just three short months of language learning, the tests were once again conducted. Scientists were able to see pronounced changes in areas of the brain related to learning new material in the group that studied language. Areas like the superior temporal gyrus grew significantly larger, while that of the control group remained the same.
Studies like this attest to the brain’s astounding absorptive power, and that the all too-common difficulties encountered by adult language learners aren’t actually about its limited bandwidth, but about different things altogether. Yes, the brain does prune itself and stabilize those neural connections, but that doesn’t dull the ability to learn a new language.
This means that it doesn’t matter whether you’re 20, 40 or 60 years old. Your brain is perfectly capable of learning a whole new language.
What this tells us about learning a language is that our age doesn’t put us at a disadvantage, so let’s dive a little deeper into the challenges that might affect an older language learner.
Age isn’t an issue
In a published quantitative and qualitative study titled “Affect trumps age: A person-in-context relational view of age and motivation in SLA,” researchers wanted to find out if early language classroom instruction is more beneficial than late onset language instruction.
One would guess that early language acquisition would yield better language achievements. It’s better to start ‘em young, right? Well, the study got some interesting results, pointing to late onset learners outperforming those with early language instruction on a variety of skills. When the researchers dug deeper as to why, their qualitative analyses uncovered how individual motivation is actually a stronger predictor of linguistic achievement.
There was something inside the better performing students that pushed and coaxed them to better language performance. They were more forward looking, more goal-oriented, more determined to succeed. Acquiring a language is simply not dependent on age and a young brain.
You know, there are plenty of young students in classrooms, forced to learn a language day in and day out for years and never actually go beyond “¡Hola!” These students are supposed to be right smack in the middle of the “critical period,” but they never progress beyond what can be learned in the first two minutes.
I know a lot of these individuals. I was once in their shoes myself. Two decades ago, compelled by well-meaning parents, I was studying Mandarin, long before China was a burgeoning superpower. I was at it for six grueling years. I’m proud to say that I have nothing to show for it today. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.) Had I known its future utility, I would’ve paid more attention to my kind and generous teachers.
In another study, it was found that the age in which a person starts their language study isn’t a predictor of language achievement. Instead, input was highlighted as a better indicator of language outcomes. High quality input, such as contact with native speakers, consistently speaking the target language and using authentic materials , results in high performance and faster language acquisition.
What these two studies point out is that it’s not age, per se, that explains the learning challenges experienced by adult language learners. Rather, it’s the things that come with age, like the attitudes and expectations of adult learners that hobble language acquisition.
We’re our own worst enemy
The language journey is a mental game as much as it is biological, and over the years, most adults have taken on a lot of limiting beliefs (one of which is the belief in the “critical period”) that puts them at a disadvantage, rather than a brain that just won’t learn a new language.
Language learning is a risk-taking enterprise. You’re voluntarily putting yourself in potentially embarrassing situations—whether in front of the class, or in front of native speakers who eat, sleep and dream in the target language. Learners are in a cauldron of mispronunciations, misunderstandings, awkward usage and non sequiturs. Language learners go blank, get tongue-tied or end up blurting a kind of gibberish that doesn’t resemble any known human language.
Language learning is being in situations where you’re not absolutely certain about things. It’s admitting that you don’t know this stuff and are still getting the hang of it. You’re bound to make embarrassing boo-boo’s along the way. All of language learning, at its very core, is risk-taking.
Unfortunately, adults have pretty much mastered the art of being safe.
“Don’t talk to strangers!” “Don’t open your mouth unless you’re absolutely certain you’re making perfect sense.” “Talk properly, or else they’ll think something is wrong with you.” “Don’t talk to yourself—for the same reasons.” These thoughts are crippling to those in the beginning stages of learning a foreign language.
On the other hand, young language learners seem to pick up a new language just like that and are not bothered by such mental baggage. Have you ever seen a child get embarrassed because she used the wrong tense of the word or the improper plural form? You wouldn’t see a child wait to get all the grammar rules right before carelessly blurting out, “I waits here!” Children get tongue-tied, end up blurting something that nobody in the room understands and we laugh it off as cute.
We aren’t as forgiving to other adults or to ourselves. When we see an adult with headphones muttering to himself, we think it’s the effect of some kind of medication he’s taking. Then we walk a few paces away, you know, just to be sure.
And those are some of the more important reasons why a kid can outshine an adult in terms of picking up a language. There’s just not so much mental noise. And I haven’t even begun talking about the family, work and school responsibilities adults have that children simply aren’t burdened with. It’s all child’s play to them. And they’re at it 24/7.
And on that note, we ask the all-important question: what can adult language learners do in order to effectively learn a new language?
Let’s look at some of the newest research and how we can apply that to our own studies.
How Language Learning Science Can Help You Acquire a Language Efficiently
Learn from the Best Language Learners
Your brain, with its awesome processing power, can handle any language you throw its way. The potential is there. There’s just some things hindering you from harnessing that full potential.
Thankfully, there’s a set of language learners that are leading the way, showing us how to effectively learn a language.
Studies have compared the coping and learning strategies of extroverts and introverts and have found that extroverts are inherently risk-takers who put themselves in much better learning positions than their peers. An extrovert, for example, will go out and talk to a complete stranger, some native speaker, and come out of the conversation with their ego unbruised, in spite of making a linguistic error every three seconds.
Meanwhile, an introvert is sitting in a cozy coffee shop somewhere (where it’s safe), intently reading a textbook, writing some grammar notes and pining for the day when he can fluently talk to a native speaker. And oh, look! The extrovert is about to approach another native speaker again. It’s a tall gentleman this time.
They’re child-like that way, not easily embarrassed. Or they get over it fast. They’re not afraid to try saying new words and phrases they’ve just learned, even when they know the pronunciation’s far from perfect.
In a classroom setting, extroverts raise their hands more. They participate in class and ask the question that’s on everybody’s mind.
Because of that, extroverts are able to more effectively and efficiently learn to speak their target language. (Introverts on the other hand, are often better when it comes to reading and writing in the target language.)
One of the most linguistically extroverted people I have ever seen would be Benny Lewis of the blog “Fluent in 3 Months.” He goes to different countries, immersing himself in the language and culture, talking to native speakers.
People who start off as complete strangers eventually become his friends. He’s the guy whose learning philosophy is to make the most mistakes as often as possible. He’ll tell you to start talking in the target language on the very first day of training.
He’s been able to make himself fluent in seven languages because he puts himself at risk, embarrassing himself in front of others. It’s not the traveling. We all know that even if you live in Japan for a couple of years, if you’ve never ventured outside those English speaking enclaves, then the change in geography won’t do you any good.
You’d have to clash with the culture head on, spend time in the public markets, for example, and interact with the locals, even if you often have to resort to sign language to get your point across.
Take a page from the best language learners and put yourself out there. Remember when I told you earlier that adults have become masters of making themselves safe? This becomes mirrored in the way they choose to learn the language. Often, they use methods and materials that are too passive and too safe. They just read and re-read textbooks, not once opening their mouths. But speaking is different from reading and learning the grammar rules, you need to speak it as often and as many times as possible, no matter how awkward you look and feel.
And please don’t get me wrong on this, because textbooks, listening and the passive consumption of materials are needed to learn the language (you need both a passive and active mix), but it shouldn’t just stop there. Often, people give up before they even get their first word out, because they’re too afraid to look stupid in front of somebody who knows more than they do.
Put yourself out there. Seek out native speakers whether online or in person. Book a teacher or a tutor who you pay to actually listen to your booboo’s and patiently lead you to the correct pronunciation and usage. Verbling and Verbal Planet have rosters of tutors and teachers you can search and sort according to rates, reviews and availability.
If you don’t want that, there are language exchange sites like My Language Exchange and Conversation Exchange. Or you can try a language exchange app like Bilingua and Hello Talk where you can trade language tips with users who are seeking to learn your language and help learn each other out. It’s free!
Get talking as often as possible during your day. If the audio program you’re listening to says, “Repeat after me.” Please repeat. Talk to yourself in your room, in the subway, in a Starbucks queue. Gesture away (it helps with your pronunciation). Record yourself and let somebody listen to it.
Take risks, because that’s at the core of learning a new language. Be a child again, all the naysayers be damned.
Practice the Magic of Spaced Repetition
You know you’ve really learned something when the skill is embedded in your long-term memory.
To be able to say you really learned a language, you have to be able to summon it at will. And you know that’s the case when you’re having lively dinner conversation with an Italian native speaker and there’s no smartphone under the table with Google Translate pulled up.
We’re not just talking about knowing a language just enough to pass the Chinese midterms, then forgetting it a week later.
So how do we do that exactly? You know, learn a language and have it stay with us for the long term?
The answer: spaced repetition.
It’s often been said that “repetition is the mother of all learning.” But spaced repetition is not your run-of-the-mill kind. Repeated exposure of the same content can actually backfire and become dull and boring, demotivating language learners so they close their minds to it.
Spaced repetition is the result of over a century’s study and research, from the “forgetting curve” hypothesized by Ebbinghaus’ in 1885 to H.F. Spitzer’s retention experiments (1939) to Hintzman’s studies on the “spacing effect” (1969)—which practically came together in Wozniak’s algorithm (1994) for optimal timing of exposure—which calculated the time and number of repetitions that make for effective learning.
It’s not just repetition that creates learning—it’s retrieval, the active recall of what one has learned, that’s been shown to bolster learning.
Active retrieval is different from passively looking at some words on a page. Active retrieval is closing that book, perhaps closing your eyes, and mentally going through what you’ve learned or memorized from the book. It’s been shown that active retrieval leads to better recall.
Students were asked to study foreign language word pairs. One group was asked to simply look and read the word pairs over and over. The other test group was told to study by actively recalling (thinking about) the other word in the word pair, instead of just looking at them again and again. Researchers found that students who studied under active recall conditions performed better when the groups were later tested.
The same researchers looked into the effectiveness of massed repetition/massed retrieval versus spaced repetition/spaced retrieval. Mass repetition is commonly referred to as “cramming,” which hordes of students swear by. Unfortunately the study doesn’t support them on this one. The study showed that students in the massed repetition condition, where they were asked to actively retrieve a piece of information three times, were outperformed by students in the spaced repetition condition where active retrieval was spaced throughout the session.
In short, cramming might get you by, but for excellent results go for spaced repetition. That is, rather than studying six hours straight, you will do better by doing three two-hour sessions.
Here are more things you can do to bolster your language learning. . .
The body of research really gives new life to an old tool—the good old flashcards. These are a pretty typical staple of studying new vocabulary (for good reason!). Because translations are written on opposite sides of the card, learners are given the chance and the time to perform active retrieval processes. They can try to recall, even guess what’s written on the other side, before finally looking.
Today, technology has been applied to the regular flashcards and they’ve now become learning materials on steroids. Now you don’t have to manually take out your deck and choose which cards to study.
This is what used to happen: you have a deck of 30 flashcards of Korean vocabulary to study. You look at the English side of the card and try to give the Korean translation on the other. Some you guess correctly, others you don’t. You group your hits into a pile and your misses into another. So you now have two piles. The more important one would be your misses. So you take them again and try to learn them a second time. Again you have your hits and misses. So you take those misses and try to nail them a third time (and so on and so forth).
Today, flashcard applications do that for you automatically so you can focus on the learning part. Flashcard apps have been imbued with spaced repetition algorithms designed to exactly pinpoint the optimum timing of exposure to certain cards. That is, the word pairs you know are shown less, while the word pairs you struggle with are more frequently revisited. And, with spaced repetition technology, you get to avoid massed repetition or cramming as well.
Combine Music and Language
Music and language are kindred spirits. Think of music as language with tap dancing shoes. Music is language with a beat—skipping, hopping and twirling on melodic cue.
Research over the years points to the intrinsic connection between the two. Before, we used to think of music and linguistic functions as residing in different hemispheres of the brain, with music engaging the right hemisphere and language localized on the left. Advances in brain imaging technology has shown scientists how the two functions actually share many common neural underpinnings.
In that same study, researchers found that phonological awareness, a linguistic skill most useful in reading and writing, is actually related to pitch awareness and musical skill. Furthermore, researchers have also discovered that people who speak a tonal language as their first tongue (like Mandarin speakers) have enhanced sensitivity to pitch changes.
But beyond that, a study has unveiled something about the convergence of music and language that’s really quite interesting. They discovered that musicians actually have a heightened ability to pick up language. People who spend a lot of time working with music have inadvertently honed their linguistic skills. Meaning that banging your drum, strumming your guitar or tickling the keys of the piano can have language learning payoffs!
What does this mean to you? Well, if that’s not an invitation to start banging those drums, I don’t know what is. Perhaps it’s better to put down that textbook for a minute and pick up those drum sticks.
Here are other things you can do with music.
The growing body of research supporting the connection between language and music can mean only one thing—you can use music to boost your language-learning. There’s just something about it that sticks and facilitates long-term embedding of the language in the working memory.
Mine songs for language gems. For example, you can learn vocabulary, catchy turn of phrases and whole sentences from lyrics of songs. Songs have a lot going for them, since they provide a solid context and an engaging story that ties all the words and phrases together. This is one of those things in language learning that is often underutilized and underappreciated. But when you really think about it, songs are really just an example of language spoken with a heightened melody. And there’s a repeating pattern that your mind can easily latch on to.
You can work with music videos and add another layer of stimulation to the senses. The visuals in music videos work with the lines, making them more meaningful and memorable.
Children’s songs work best for beginners. They’re short, they’re catchy and the language involved is simple.
You can also do the reverse of this technique, which means that instead of repeating that grammar rule over and over, sing it to the tune of a familiar melody. It can be a pop song close to your heart, or the latest hit (“Despacito”, anyone?).
You’ll find that learning through music will make it easier to commit new words, phrases and grammar rules to memory since you’ll have real-world examples of how it’s put into practice.
And while we’re talking about hearing language in context…
Get in the Mix of the Context and Language Combo
Language can be learned more effectively when placed in a vivid context, like a story, a movie or a song. Because in reality, language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The words gain their meaning through a specific context.
And there’s no better provider of context than content. In this case, content refers to subjects or topics taught in the classroom. Let’s see what the research tells us.
There’s a teaching approach that’s been making the rounds in the language classrooms in Europe. It’s called CLIL, or Content and Language Integrated Learning. The idea behind it is that instead of teaching language itself, teachers discuss a whole different subject, like history, but use the target language as a medium of instruction.
So instead of teaching French, you’ll get classes like World History taught in French. Or Philosophy taught in German. So you’re really hitting two birds with one stone on this one. You’re learning a subject and a language at the same time. (Granted, teaching a subject using a language not mastered by one’s students is an eminent challenge, but skilled teachers have been able to meet this challenge.)
CLIL students benefit from this setup because instead of using traditional language materials like textbooks, they’re shown the language in live, real world situations. The language experience becomes more authentic.
A study compared linguistic achievements by CLIL and non-CLIL classes in Hungary. In the CLIL classes, English was used as the medium of instruction for different high school subjects. The study found that students from these classes displayed better functional English proficiency than those from the traditional language learning classes. CLIL students displayed more comprehensive vocabulary, more nuanced grammar, more comprehension and conversational skills. More and more institutions are encouraged by the benefits of CLIL and are adapting their classrooms to this design.
But what does all this talk about CLIL mean to language learners who don’t plan on spending any time in the classroom?
Well, you should pick up the lessons from CLIL by finding content of your own.
The key is combining the language with something that you’re interested in.
If you love technology and enjoy reading about the newest smartphone, then put that passion to good use and read about phone-related stuff in your target language. Listen to gadget reviews and explore websites. Read the comments section at the bottom of websites written by native speakers regarding a specific model. Do this in the guise of learning more about smartphones.
Lo and behold, you’ll pick up vocabulary and phrases that you’re more likely to use on a daily basis.
Love gardening? I’m sure you can find a gardening guidebook in Japanese. Are jokes and funny stories your thing? Give a German collection of jokes a try. Enjoy music? Listen to K-pop.
If you’re going to apply this to your studies, the key is to start with materials so easy that you can’t be possibly be overwhelmed. So choose short videos, or pick up book titles geared towards children. Otherwise, the 600-page treatise on German Philosophy would just go over your head. Start instead with a poster that points to the different car parts in Italian and you’re on a far better footing.
FluentU might be a good place to start since the learning program uses exactly these kinds of short, engaging videos. FluentU is available in 10 languages, so you can watch K-pop music videos, gardening tips in Japanese or jokes in German under one account.
The program makes these authentic videos approachabe by pairing them with learning tools like interactive subtitles and transcripts, video-enhanced flashcards and personalized quizzes. The content library is arranged by difficulty, topic and format, making it easier to find videos that suit your interests and goals.
Do the content and language combo and you’ll be learning a new language and engaging in two of your passions at the same time.
These are just some of the research-backed insights that can help you pick up a language in record time. Apply them to your language learning journey and you’ll immediately reap their benefits. I wish you the best!