Try, try again? Study says no
March 22, 2015 9:44 AM   Subscribe

Neuroscientists find that trying harder makes it more difficult to learn some aspects of language.
In a new study, a team of neuroscientists and psychologists led by Amy Finn, a postdoc at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, has found evidence for another factor that contributes to adults’ language difficulties: When learning certain elements of language, adults’ more highly developed cognitive skills actually get in the way. The researchers discovered that the harder adults tried to learn an artificial language, the worse they were at deciphering the language’s morphology — the structure and deployment of linguistic units such as root words, suffixes, and prefixes.
posted by Lexica (8 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
The past paragraph in the last link seems especially relevant to seeking the best approach:

This reminds me of a recent discussion I had on twitter about learning languages by acquiring a bunch of vocab and then immersing yourself until your subconscious figures out the grammar for you. This study makes it sound like that would be a good idea. Much as I enjoy learning grammar, it’s not really conscious knowledge of grammar that enables you to talk fluently.

Specifically, a repetitive (re-vocalized) interaction with recorded lists of words and phrases unrelated to memory-learning the language is what is needed. The brain creates room for them, then connects to their usage later.
posted by Brian B. at 10:48 AM on March 22, 2015 [6 favorites]

Repetitive interaction never did much good when I was learning languages. I'm good at memorizing words. I can memorize random nonsensical words. I think the brain needs to hear them in context in order for the words to be learned as a language rather than as some meaningless memorized sounds.
posted by eye of newt at 12:27 PM on March 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

The "common wisdom" that children supposedly learn languages better than adults was never true in my case. As I've aged, I actually find myself having an easier time with some aspects of foreign language learning I found difficult. Listening comprehension - which for me was near-impossible in languages I could read at a near-fluent level when I was younger - has slowly gotten easier for me. I don't know if it's something that changed in my brain, or because technology makes it much, much easier to find foreign language media to listen to than in the past. As a kid, I had to use a shortwave radio just to get an unintelligible snippet of a foreign radio station through the static. Nowadays you can just go on Youtube and there's full-length movies and clips in any language you could possibly want.
posted by pravit at 12:38 PM on March 22, 2015

This makes sense to me. Language learners expect way too much too soon, IMO. We want to start doing all the same things we do in our own languages in the new language immediately, when it's probably more realistic (though admittedly not more practical) to just chill the fuck out and be content to do something more like what children do for a while. Children achieve perfect acquisition in a few short years, but only after a long stretch of shamelessly talking total nonsense and only understanding a fraction of what they hear (whilst being petted and cooed over all day long, probably, the bastards). And they'll be attempting the latest Patrick Modiano years and years after they've mastered the uses of the subjunctive, not years and years before like I'm doing now. But adults have the conquering urge -- unprepared to just let things go over our heads and always with the damn dictionary. Some people learn that way, but I think more people struggle. So I've always thought there should be more attention paid to creating semi-educational entertainment for adults, somewhere between watching Plaza Sésamo every afternoon like a three-year-old and struggling through Cien años de soledad at a hard desk with a dictionary. I wish it were easier to find content that's simple enough for like, early intermediate learners to follow yet holds your attention as a grown person yet doesn't teach you to talk like a mouthy 14-year-old or a grey-frocked character in a bleak mid-century production.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 1:07 PM on March 22, 2015 [11 favorites]

Like, say, Harry Potter translations?
posted by Night_owl at 1:35 PM on March 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

Programming languages and human languages are not the same. There are maybe two real distinct programming "languages", the rest is surface syntax and abstraction. Programming languages are also not conversational.

Human languages... well...
posted by smidgen at 7:49 PM on March 22, 2015 [5 favorites]

10 PRINT "Hello World";
20 PRINT "Nice weather today. How are you doing?";
30 INPUT $A;

posted by ardgedee at 8:14 PM on March 22, 2015 [3 favorites]

Night owl: the Harry Potter idea seems to be popular for romance languages! I've heard of quite a few people using the texts to absorb enough of a language after an intensive adult language course.

I made the mistake of trying this after an intensive Japanese class one summer. The translation of Harry Potter into Japanese is so florid and mythological, it may as well have been The Tale of Genji for all I could read it. I barely got past the "once upon a time" beginning before crashing and burning on the first page.

So yeah, I think the distance from your native language group to the one the book was translated to has some importantce here!
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 8:06 AM on March 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

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