Tired adults can learn a language like children
Children often learn new languages more easily than adults, but it’s not clear why. Some theorize that grasping language requires subconsciously absorbing subtle patterns and that adults’ higher conscious reasoning interferes. New research suggests that indeed adults may be too smart for their own good.
For a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, a group of Belgian adults simultaneously read and heard strings of four made-up words (such as “kieng nief siet hiem”). Specific consonants always appeared at the beginning or end of a word if the word contained a certain vowel. Participants then quickly read the sequences aloud. Their ability to avoid mistakes while doing so indicated how well they absorbed consonant-vowel patterns.
But before being exposed to the new words, the participants performed a separate test: pressing keys to react to letters and numbers. Some had a much faster and more mentally exhausting version of this test. Those who tackled the difficult version claimed greater cognitive fatigue afterwards, but realized better on the next language task. The researchers hypothesized that fatigued learners used a less conscious analysis of word rules: they were free to learn like a child.
For a related article, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, the team asked English-speaking adults to listen to streams of syllables secretly grouped into three-syllable “words.” Later they played pairs of three-syllable bands; one word in the pair was from the stream and the other was a new combination. Participants guessed which word was familiar and then rated their confidence.
In one group of participants, some had first taken the initial mental exhaustion test. In another, some received magnetic pulses to disrupt activity in an area of the brain that previous research had linked to executive control. In both groups, these interventions improved participants’ performance on the syllable task when they were unsure of their responses, indicating unconscious speech analysis. (Confident responses suggest conscious recall instead.)
Michael Ullman, a neuroscientist at Georgetown University, who did not participate in either paper, likes that the studies tax cognitive control differently and measure different skills. “It’s really good in science because you have converging evidence,” he says, adding that he would like to see more advanced language skills such as grammar studied that way.
Eleonore Smalle, a psychologist at Ghent University, who led both articles, offers advice based on her team’s findings. When you start learning a language, she says, immerse yourself in its sounds, even — or especially — while distracted. “Have a good glass of wine while listening to a podcast in Italian,” she suggests, laughing. “Why not? That might help.