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Trying Harder Makes it More Difficult to Learn a Language

Trying Harder Makes it More Difficult to Learn a Language
on August, 05 2014
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Image credit: Applying sunscreen taken by National Cancer Institute under Public Domain.

Image credit: Applying sunscreen taken by National Cancer Institute under Public Domain.

When you are learning a language, the best approach is not to try harder, according to neuroscientists, because the harder you try, the more difficult it is to learn a language. When a learner tries harder, it also becomes difficult to learn some aspects of the new language. Age also is a factor on how easy it is to learn a new language, as each age group has different strengths in learning.

Differences between children and adults

According to neuroscientists, adults are adept at absorbing vocabulary needed for everyday life, such as ordering food or navigating the grocery store. Children on the other hand have the extraordinary ability to pick up the subtleties of a language that seem lost in adults, which at times, enables them to speak a second language like a native speaker in a matter of months. Scientists say that the brain structure when children are able to do that usually ends when they turn adolescents. When a child lives in a foreign country for a few months, it had been observed that the child quickly grasps the language and can easily speak it like a native.

That sensitive period when children are able to do this extraordinary ability to pick up and speak a language easily is due to the neural circuits in the young brain, which can analyze sounds and build a logical set of rules for word construction and sentence creation from those sounds. But once the language structures have been established, the building of a new one for another language becomes difficult.

New study

A team of psychologists and neuroscientists led by Amy Finn from MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research conducted a new study and they have found new evidence on why it is difficult for adults to learn a new language. According to the results of their study, the highly developed cognitive skills of adults get in the way of them learning certain elements of a new language. They also found out that the harder they try to learn a new language, the more difficult it is for them to understand its morphology or the structure and distribution of the units of a language, such as prefixes, suffixes and root words.

Using more brainpower

Linguists have known for several years that children are more skilled in learning the subtle elements of a language like irregular past participles and complex verb tenses. They are better than adults in terms of command of structural components of a language and grammar, which in some cases, even native speakers are not consciously aware of, according to Ms. Finn.

Linguist Elissa Newport posited in 1990 that the difficulty faced by adults when learning a new language is due to their trying too hard to analyze many information all at once. It was an idea that had been around for some time but there was no data available to prove it. That was what the team did in the study that they came up with.

Findings

The results of their study supported their theory that in language acquisition, some parts are learned via declarative memory while others are learned through procedural memory. Declarative memory is used to store facts and knowledge and useful in learning rules of grammar and learning vocabulary. Procedural memory on the other hand guides task that are automatically performed, which becomes useful in learning the rules connected with the morphology of a language.

 

AUTHOR
Bernadine Racoma

Bernadine is a writer, researcher, professional and multi-awarded blogger and new media consultant. She brings with her a rich set of experience in the corporate world, as well as in the field of research and writing. Having taken early retirement after working as an international civil servant and traveling the world for 22 years, she has aggressively pursued her main interest in writing and research. You can also find Bernadine Racoma at .

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