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Try, try and try again? Research says no

Jul 2014

Language ,


Neuroscientists at MIT have discovered that trying hard can hinder the learning of certain language points.

We’ve known for some time about the language learning abilities of children. Between birth and puberty children sit in a so-called “sensitive period” that aids language acquisition.

They pick up irregular tenses without hours of diligent study. They master the production of sounds without the need for an articulation diagram. They even employ sarcastic tones without ever been taught what sarcasm is.

They have an uncanny ability to learn language without a concerted effort.

This is partly due to the segmental development of the brain. Certain parts of the brain develop faster than others and so, for the first period of our lives, we excel at procedural memory.

This type of memory is involved when we learn unconsciously. It’s how we learn to ride a bike, how we learn to dance or how we know to use a rising terminal inflection to indicate a question. Procedural memory lets us learn by observing and by experiencing.

However, over time this memory system is gradually replaced with others. These new late-developing systems are based far less on exploratory processes. We fall out of this “sensitive period” and become less able to learn by simply experiencing.

In 1990, linguist Elissa Newport examined the difference of an adult learning language and a child learning language. Adults have a much more highly developed prefrontal cortex than children. Newport hypothesised that this increase in brainpower was actually a hindrance to language acquisition as we tend to throw all our effort at a problem at once. We overthink things and the language becomes obfuscated and unclear.

The new study from MIT seeks to build on the work of Newport. The study sees the creation of nine two-syllable nonsense words. Each word falls into one of three categories determined by the order of consonant and vowel sounds.

Study participants were then asked to listen to the artificial language for 10 minutes.

The study’s participants were split into two groups. One group was told not to overanalyse their listening. To aid this they were offered the choice of colouring in or completing a puzzle while they listened.

The other group was told to actively try to identify the words they were hearing.

After listening to the language participants underwent three tests focused on word segmentation, word ordering and language morphology. In the first two tests both groups performed relatively similarly.

In the final test participants were played a three-word sentence that included a word they had not heard before. The strange word would always fit the conditions of one of the initial word groups: A, B or C.

When asked whether the strange word was in the correct location the active listening group performed much worse than those who listened passively.

“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,” said study author Amy Finn in a statement.

So, what’s the advice from Finn? Should we listen? Should we concentrate? Should we doodle and daydream and plan what to have for dinner? Unfortunately Finn claims that her current research does not bear any practical implications just yet. We’ll have to wait a little longer to find out how to best learn language.


What do you think of this new study from MIT? Have you successfully picked up a new language through hard work and determination? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter.

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