Why Adults Struggle to Pick up New Languages

Jul 26, 2014

By Kelly Dickerson


Many adults struggle to learn a second language, but not for lack of effort — the problem may actually be that they’re trying too hard, a new study suggests.

Scientists have long suspected that adults’ superior cognitive function might actually be a drawback in picking up a new language, giving kids the upper hand. In the new study, when adults were told to try to learn the proper sentence structure and grammar of a new language, the participants actually learned less than those who were not told they would have to take a quiz.

“The most surprising thing about the study is that trying can actually harm learning outcome,” Amy Finn, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, told Live Science. “Superior cognitive function is better for almost everything else.”

Trying makes it harder

To test how adults learn a second language, Finn and a team of researchers recruited 22 native English speakers and had them listen to 10 minutes of a made-up language. The vocabulary of the fake language consisted of nine two-syllable words, and each word belonged to one of three categories grouped by sound structure. The participants were told to color while they listened, so they would not focus their full attention on the language.

The researchers then gave the participants a test to see how much of the language they picked up. Each participant had to choose which of two words or which of two sentences was more likely to belong to the language they just heard.

In the second part of the study, 66 native English speakers took the same test. But this time, researchers told one-third of the participants to try to learn the vocabulary; they told another third to make an effort to learn the different categories of words (which was like learning noun classes in a new language); and they told the last third to try to learn the pattern that the categories appeared in (which resembled learning more-complicated grammar rules of a new language).

To make sure the participants paid close attention the whole time, unlike the people coloring during the first study, the researchers asked their subjects to press a button every time they thought they recognized some of the vocabulary or grammar patterns.

29 comments on “Why Adults Struggle to Pick up New Languages

  • When I was taught French and Latin at school (admittedly that was 50 years ago so things may be different today) the first thing we learned was how to decline the verb “to be”. This seems like a bizarre way to learn a language, and it is certainly not how I learned English.

    Surely the best way to learn French is the way the French learn French, ie the natural way, by seeing it used? I believe that there is evidence to support this.

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  • i always find things about language and language acquisition interesting; especially, when the people writing about language write so appallingly themselves.

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  • I’m actually learning french ( well improving my knowledge of french, it’s one of the official languages of my country ) , and actually it’s a bit of both

    1) You need some basics of a language to get started : how to use verbs, a little bit of vocabulary. Without them you can’t really start a conversation which is necessary for the second part

    2) You need to talk to native speakers to be able to speak it more fluently and not forget the words and grammar usage

    At first it’s very difficult , but eventually something weird happens : you start to be able to speak the language without thinking about it. It’s like your brain switches into ‘french’ mode 🙂

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  • To test how adults learn a second language, Finn and a team of researchers recruited 22 native English speakers and had them listen to 10 minutes of a made-up language. The vocabulary of the fake language consisted of nine two-syllable words, and each word belonged to one of three categories grouped by sound structure.

    I think it’s debatable if this was a language learning test or a memory test, two very different questions. From the description what they were trying to learn sounds like something that may not have the rules of syntax and grammar of actual languages in which case the results are meaningless. There is much more to learning a language than just associating words with meanings as an analysis of language learning. It’s why children of a certain age are so much better at learning a language than adults.

    Also, I’m surprised they didn’t mention the issue of bilingual vs unilingual speakers. I know I’ve heard it said that people who learn a second language as children can learn subsequent languages much easier and in my experience that is true. I’m not sure if there is actual data that backs that up but its certainly true in my experience and it further illustrates the distinction between being able to memorize things in general and being able to learn a language.

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  • I think your experience highlights an interesting evolution in the way many people think about language. When you and I were children most teachers and linguists thought that the major part of learning a language was learning the formal rules of grammar. In fact as actual research was done by linguists they found that yes, people internalize those rules but usually without the need to have them spelled out formally or even being aware of them. And that as a result a better way to learn language, which is by far the preferred way now is “immersion”, putting yourself in an environment where everyone speaks the language and picking it up the way a child would learn a language (the way they actually do not the way linguists used to think they did). I’m not saying that learning the various rules aren’t useful as well they are but I think you are correct and that most people who study this stuff would agree that it’s backwards to spend all the effort on rules of syntax first and to emphasize learning by use.

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  • Context is important in learning languages. In my experience, total immersion in the culture of the language you are trying to learn is key. When learning German in junior high school, I carefully memorized verb forms, gendered nouns, syntax, and grammar, but it only really clicked once I went to Germany and was surrounded by native speakers. It was a kind of sink-or-swim situation, and, once I didn’t have time to consciously try to translate everything I heard into English, I began to realize I could understand the gist of what people were saying without thinking about it. I could also mimic the pronunciation much more easily. Now I’m trying to learn my ancestral language, Norwegian, which I remember my hearing my grandmothers speak. It’s a Germanic language, but it has very different inflections, as well as having two different written forms, Nynorsk and Bokmal. I find I can listen to the language in the context of a movie without subtitles and understand bits and pieces based on sounds and visual clues much easier than trying to memorize grammar. I feel that if I could spend several months in Norway I would pick it up much more quickly, just like German. Frequent use is important, too. I haven’t used German much in the last 30 years, so have forgotten some, but I can still understand it when I hear it.

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  • I always count in French because the numbers more or less have all the phonetics contained in the language, so it’s a good pronunciation exercise; plus, the increased effort it takes helps me to remember codes, prices and so on.

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  • It seems counter intuitive, but people illiterate in their own language usually learn English more easily than those who study the subject formally, (at least in ability to converse with the locals). So the street vendor is going to be better equipped than the scholar. Apparently this is because a language is learnt in chunks, not as isolated words. When you think about the way we use language, there are certain words that are only ever used in combination with another or as part of a familiar phrase. Applying correct grammar and inflections can slow down the process when the learner is trying to communicate.

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  • Languages vary a lot, and can be much harder to learn as they become more remote from the familiar.

    I speak some French, Can manage a few German phrases with a phrase book, can manage a few Spanish phrases with phrase book, can translate American into English, and was severely challenged when I tried to manage Russian with a phrase book (Learning to translate the Cyrillic Alphabet helps) . My daughter was going to send emails from Japan – until she saw a Japanese keyboard !

    Of course languages continue to develop!
    One of my sons is competent in several :- C++, C#, Ruby-on-Rails, Java.

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  • Yes, languages with European roots are easier for the English speaker and Asian languages and Arabic are very difficult indeed. Tonal languages are almost impossible for the adult learner and the reverse is true for these speakers. I’ve attempted mandarin, though unfortunately my hearing was not attuned to the variations. I only managed a few of the most common phrases.

    This is not to say that the task is impossible. Some clever folk with a good ear, manage to pick up languages with apparent ease. Total immersion coupled with a lack of inhibition seems to bring about the best results.

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  • This is not to say that the task is impossible. Some clever folk with a good ear, manage to pick up languages with apparent ease. Total immersion coupled with a lack of inhibition seems to bring about the best results.

    The spoken word without writing, or the written word without pronunciation, seems easier.

    Interestingly, Japanese Universities require students to learn to read and write in English, but not speak it.

    Anecdotally, I also find that foreign university students (from numerous countries), understand English instructions better if they are written on a board, rather than spoken.

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  • That has been my personal experience as well. I find it fairly easy to read newspaper articles in any of the Romance languages as I studied Latin at school. Germanic languages are not too difficult as they’re closely allied to English. Of course the bar is not set very high when it comes to reading newspaper headlines. Reading anything of depth is another matter.

    It was even possible to read signs when travelling through Greece. All those Greek letters used in Maths were suddenly brought into use!

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  • 13
    neroman79 says:

    I agree completely. I would also say that people who are literate in their native language learn how to read and write in foreign language much better than they speak a foreign language. Everyone who I took Spanish with in college are better at reading and writing Spanish than speaking the language.

    On the other hand I tutor illiterate people and they pick up spoken English very quickly. And they take a long time to learn to read and write.

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  • 14
    Cairsley says:

    Noam Chomsky and others have clearly established the facility with which children in their first five or so years acquire their first language or languages (uni/bi/tri-lingualism) as contrasted with the relative difficulty with which older persons, including teenagers, learn a nonnative language (by which I mean a language other than that or those spoken in the community into which someone is born and raised). What interests me about this article is that it suggests an explanation of this difference in language-learning facility, and it even suggests that the remarkable ability of young children to learn language is not lost (entirely) but rather superseded by the demands of the processes for fact-learning and reasoning made on the resources of the brain as the child grows. In fact, language teachers have been alert to something of this sort for a few decades now, simply because more immersive styles of language-teaching that involve different media, more activities and more use of the language being taught as the language of instruction in class have been found to be more effective in giving students competence in the language. But it is good to see research revealing evidence for a testable hypothesis of what is going on when people acquire or learn a language.

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  • I wonder which group would end up in the best position after say, ten or even twenty years? I haven’t seen any follow-up studies, but my instincts tell me that the ‘readers’ will eventually have the better vocabulary and become more confident in broaching weightier topics.

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  • ‘Univision’ channel is enjoyable to watch. I don’t understand Spanish, but it pleases the ears to listen to a different language.

    I followed a soap opera for a while, and it didn’t take long to discern the plot lines, simply by reading the body language, and voice inflections. Fun!

    (disclaimer, the above is in no way political in nature)

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  • A good example of a difficult language is Kivunjo, the Bantu language, which has the following tenses: present, today, earlier today, yesterday, no earlier than yesterday, yesterday or earlier, in the remote past, habitually, ongoing, consecutively, hypothetically, in the future, at an indeterminate time, not yet and sometimes! It is hard to see how even the native speakers can learn all that.

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  • Having stuggled mightily to learn Spanish over the past couple of decades, (my wife is a native Spanish speaker), I can attest to the fact that you have to learn “organically” and overcome the instinct to try and translate everything. For example the Spanish word for “red” is “rojo(a)”, but when you hear the phrase “una camisa roja” the internal process must be to visualize the color and not trot off to the mental english-spanish dictionary and look it up. I can imagine that something similar is going on here. I sound like a rosetta stone propagandist I suppose! (though I didn’t use any kind of course to learn Spanish).

    Funnily enough there are now times when I learn a new word in Spanish and don’t immediately make the connection to it’s English counterpart.

    One of the things that helped me greatly was listening to music. I love a wide variety of latin music and we almost always have something playing around the house. When you listen to music it may be that you enter an equivalent mental state to the people doing coloring. Might be worth a follow-up study.

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  • I’ve been learning Japanese and I have spent a semester there. I’ve only taken 1 formal class for it and I have ADHD so take what I say with a grain of salt.

    I prefer going it alone. The basic grammar that we learned was stuff you can learn on your own. You don’t need a college level course to learn how to count or to ask, “what’s your major?” I preferred go out and listening to people and their conversations. Listening comprehension is a big part of it too. If you can’t “hear” what people are saying, then it doesn’t matter how many words or grammar structures you know. You’re gong to have problems communicating.

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  • There is logic to it, firstly the verb to be is actually two verbs in French, one based on Etre and one based on Sera

    The French mangled it into one composite verb, the Spaniards still have it as two separate verbs. So in French if you refer to the past, Etre rules, and if you refer to the future or conditional, Sera rules. As for the present it is 50/50 : Je suis (sera), tu es (être), il est (être), nous sommes (sera), vous êtes (être), ils sont (sera).

    Both “to be” and “to have” are important irregular verbs, both in French and English, and appear in many constructs, sometimes one language uses one when the other uses the other one, “J’ai 8 ans, I am 8”, “je suis allé = I have gone”. If you master to be and to have, you know half the language. 🙂

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  • 23
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    “Sera” is not a distinct verb from the verb “être” (to be). It is no more than the conjugation of the same verb in the future tense in the 2nd person singular and 3rd person singular.

    Present tense:

    1st person singular: Je suis (I am)
    2nd person singular: Tu es (You are)
    3rd person singular: Il/Elle est (He/She is)
    1st person plural: Nous sommes (We are)
    2nd person plural: Vous êtes (You are) **
    3rd person plural: Ils sont (They are)

    Future tense:

    1st person singular: Je serai (I will be)
    2nd person singular: Tu sera (You will be) <— this is the one I’m talking about
    3rd person singular: Il/Elle sera (He she will be) <– ditto
    1st person plural: Nous serons (We will be)
    2nd person plural: Vous serez (You will be)
    3rd person plural: Ils seront (They will be)

    **Note that the 2nd person plural is specific to French because in English, the pronoun “You” can be equally be used to designate one or several people. The 2nd person plural in French (vous) is normally used to address several people. But it can also be used to address a single person as a form of deference (a pupil addressing his teacher or a child addressing an elder for example). In particular instances, the “vous” pronoun can also be used as a subtle way to purposefully signify coldness, distance or scorn towards a person you don’t appreciate.

    The conjugation of verbs in French is not an easy task, not quite as hard as Bantu perhaps but not exactly a piece of cake either. I appreciate that you’re trying to learn my language but I couldn’t let this one pass. I had to set the record straight here.

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  • One of my sons is competent in several :- C++, C#, Ruby-on-Rails, Java.

    But, sorry I can’t help pointing this out, those languages are trivial to parse compared to natural languages. That’s not an opinion it’s a proven (in the mathematical sense) conclusion from Chomsky’s work on languages. There are different categories of languages and they require ever more complex machines (in the virtual mathematical sense, like a turing machine or state machine not actual physical machines) to parse. Computer languages require context to understand the semantics but the syntax is always unambiguous. Natural languages have even different syntactic interpretations based on context which makes them fundamentally more complex to parse.

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  • 25
    PierreDemaere says:

    Okay for just learning how to speak and converse. I agree! How will you do this in English when thousands and thousands of words are misspelled (in the dictionary, that is)? “are” but “am” but “ar-gument”/ “I” but “you” (not “u/U”)/ “have” but “rev” but “are” ….

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  • Ummm. I’m not quite sure what you mean by the last line.

    Another point in learning a language either formally, informally or a bit of both, is the arbitrary nature in the choice of preposition. On close inspection it’s weird to say things such as ” going UP the street” meaning to shop, or IN the open air, whereas the French or Italian would use AT. This is where the informal learner has the advantage as the phrase is learnt as a whole. The same applies when using the appropriate tense. If a familiar sentence or group of words is used frequently, the correct tense is embedded in the sentence. No need to think it out.

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  • 27
    Cairsley says:

    A happy find, Nitya. It was a bit like listening to Aristotle paying just tribute to Plato. Both Chomsky (because his transformational grammar was all the rage when I did my degree in linguistics) and Pinker are, in my view, among the greats, and it was very nice to listen to Pinker commenting fairly on his former teacher and colleague in terms Chomsky would himself approve.

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  • The task for the learner is far easier with these resources! I learnt French and Latin at high school and such resources were nonexistent. If you could imagine a group of schoolgirls trying to speak French with an Australian accent! Ughhhh! The sound of our Australian accented French must have been appalling! The closest French speaking region for us to visit was New Caledonia, but people seldom travelled abroad in those days.

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  • Four years ago at the ripe old age of 55 I came up with the questionably brilliant idea of learning French. I used an instructor for 2-1/2 years, and now listen to French radio, read French websites, subscribe to a couple of educational sites like News in Slow French and a few others. I even have my GPS programmed in the damned language. I’ve been to France twice and have yet to be arrested for mutilating this beautiful language. But, I do give new meaning to the expression “Excuse my French”.

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