The Science of Language Learning and 4 Ways It Helps at Any Level
Researchers have found some cool information that can make studying a language easy, fun and effective.
Your age and proclivity for languages matter much less than you might think.
What’s really important is that you study the right way—and believe that you can succeed!
So, let’s review the science of language learning, and four ways you can use that knowledge to your advantage in your language studies.
- The Science of Learning a Language
- How to Use the Science of Language Learning to Your Advantage
- More Language Learning Resources
- And One More Thing...
The Science of Learning a Language
The brain’s plasticity
Think yourself too old to learn new tricks? Maybe you’ve heard about the “critical period,” during which language learning is the easiest. Proponents of this theory would say that if you’re not in the correct age range (early childhood to adolescence), learning a new tongue becomes an uphill battle.
Well I’ve got news for you: The hill is not as steep as people think.
The human brain is built for lifelong learning. It doesn’t fossilize after a certain age, but instead retains the ability to create, mend or restructure neural connections throughout life—which is what learning a new language, on a physical level, essentially is.
In this study published in 2012, scientists administered MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and electrophysiology tests on new recruits at the Swedish Armed Forces Interpreter Academy (folks beyond the so-called “critical period”) before commencing their language studies.
The scientists also administered tests on a control group that also studied, but not languages. After just three short months of language learning, the tests were conducted again. The results showed pronounced changes in areas of the brain related to learning new material in the group that studied language, while that of the control group remained the same.
Studies like this attest to the brain’s astounding absorptive power, and that the all too common difficulties encountered by adult language learners aren’t actually about its limited bandwidth, but about different things altogether.
This means that it doesn’t matter whether you’re 20, 40 or 60 years old—your brain is perfectly capable of learning a new language!
The (un)importance of age
In a published quantitative and qualitative study titled “Affect trumps age: A person-in-context relational view of age and motivation in SLA,” researchers wanted to find out if early language classroom instruction is more beneficial than late onset language instruction.
One would guess that early language acquisition would yield better language achievements. It’s better to start ’em young, right? Well, the study found some interesting results, pointing to late onset learners outperforming those with early language instruction on a variety of skills.
When the researchers dug deeper as to why, their qualitative analyses uncovered that individual motivation is actually a stronger predictor of linguistic achievement.
There was something inside the better-performing students that pushed and coaxed them to better language performance. They were more forward-looking, more goal-oriented, more determined to succeed. Acquiring a language is not simply dependent on age and a young brain.
There are plenty of young students in classrooms forced to learn a language day in and day out for years, but they never actually go beyond “¡Hola!” These students are right smack in the middle of the “critical period” and yet they never progress beyond what can be learned in the first two minutes.
In another study, it was found that the age in which a person starts their language study isn’t a predictor of language achievement. Instead, input was a better indicator of language outcomes.
High quality input, such as contact with native speakers, consistently speaking the target language and using authentic materials, resulted in high performance and faster language acquisition.
What these two studies point out is that it’s not age, per se, that explains the learning challenges experienced by adult language learners. Rather, it’s the things that come with age, like the attitudes and expectations of adult learners, that hobble language acquisition.
The obstacles adults face
The language journey is a mental game as much as it is biological, and over the years, most adults have taken on a lot of limiting beliefs (like the “critical period”!) that put them at a disadvantage, rather than possessing a brain that just won’t learn a new language.
Language learning is a risk-taking enterprise. You’re voluntarily putting yourself in potentially embarrassing situations—whether in front of the class, or in front of native speakers who eat, sleep and dream in the target language.
Learners are in a cauldron of mispronunciations, misunderstandings, awkward usage and non sequiturs. Language learners go blank, get tongue-tied or end up blurting a kind of gibberish that doesn’t resemble any known human language.
Language learning is being in situations where you’re not absolutely certain about things. It’s admitting that you don’t know this stuff and are still getting the hang of it. You’re bound to make embarrassing boo-boo’s along the way. All of language learning, at its very core, is risk-taking.
Unfortunately, adults have pretty much mastered the art of being safe:
- “Don’t talk to strangers!”
- “Don’t open your mouth unless you’re absolutely certain you’re making perfect sense.”
- “Talk properly, or else they’ll think something is wrong with you.”
- “Don’t talk to yourself—for the same reasons.”
These thoughts are crippling to those in the beginning stages of learning a foreign language.
On the other hand, young language learners seem to pick up a new language just like that, and they’re not bothered by such mental baggage.
Have you ever seen a child get embarrassed because she used the wrong tense of the word or the improper plural form? You wouldn’t see a kid wait to get all the grammar rules right before carelessly blurting out, “I waits here!” Children get tongue-tied and end up blurting out something that nobody in the room understands, and we laugh it off as cute.
We aren’t as forgiving to other adults or to ourselves. When we see an adult with headphones muttering to himself, we think it’s the effect of some kind of medication he’s taking. Then we walk a few paces away, you know, just to be sure.
And those are some of the more important reasons why a kid can outshine an adult in terms of picking up a language. There’s just not so much mental noise.
And I haven’t even begun talking about the family, work and school responsibilities adults have that children simply aren’t burdened with. It’s all child’s play to them, and they’re at it 24/7.
So on that note, we ask the all-important question: What can adult language learners do in order to effectively learn a new language?
Let’s look at some of the research and how we can apply it to our own studies.
How to Use the Science of Language Learning to Your Advantage
1. Learn from the best language learners
Your brain can handle any language you throw its way. The potential is there. There’s just some obstacles hindering you from harnessing that full potential.
Thankfully, you can discover how to effectively learn a language from other language learners that are leading the way.
Studies have compared the coping and learning strategies of extroverts and introverts and found that extroverts are inherently risk-takers who put themselves in much better learning positions than their peers.
An extrovert, for example, will go out and talk to a complete stranger (a native speaker) and come out of the conversation with their ego unbruised, even if they make a linguistic error every three seconds.
Meanwhile, an introvert is sitting in a cozy coffee shop somewhere, intently reading a textbook, writing some grammar notes and pining for the day when they can fluently talk to a native speaker.
And oh, look! The extrovert is about to approach another native speaker again.
They’re child-like in this way, not easily embarrassed. Or they get over it fast. They’re not afraid to try saying new words and phrases they’ve just learned, even when they know their pronunciation is far from perfect.
In a classroom setting, extroverts raise their hands more. They participate in class and ask the question that’s on everybody’s mind.
Because of all that, extroverts are able to more effectively and efficiently learn to speak their target language. (Introverts on the other hand, are often better when it comes to reading and writing in the target language.)
One of the most linguistically extroverted people I have ever seen would be Benny Lewis of “Fluent in 3 Months,” who is fluent in at least seven languages. He goes to different countries, immersing himself in the language and culture while—and this is the key—talking to native speakers.
People who start off as complete strangers eventually become his friends. His learning philosophy is to make many mistakes, as often as possible. He’ll tell you to start talking in the target language on the very first day of learning.
Remember when I told you earlier that adults have become masters of making themselves safe? This is often mirrored in the way they choose to learn a language. Many times, they use methods and materials that are too passive and too safe. They read and re-read textbooks, not once opening their mouths.
Instead, these learners need to follow the lead of the best language learners, like Benny Lewis:
- Speak as often as possible. It doesn’t matter how awkward you feel. Speaking is different from reading and learning grammar rules, and you won’t learn unless you do it.
If the audio program you’re listening to says, “Repeat after me,” repeat it. Talk to yourself in your room, on the subway, in the Starbucks queue. Gesture too, if it helps you. Record yourself speaking and let somebody listen to it.
- Learn with a professional. Seek out native-speaking teachers, whether online or in person. Book a teacher or a tutor to listen to your booboo’s and patiently lead you to the correct pronunciation and usage.
- Find a language exchange partner. There are sites such as My Language Exchange and Conversation Exchange, and apps like Bilingua, Hello Talk and others where you can chat and trade language tips with users who are seeking to learn your language.
And please don’t get me wrong here: Textbooks, listening practice and the passive consumption of materials are needed to learn a language.
It just shouldn’t stop there. Often, people give up before they even get their first word out, because they’re too afraid to look stupid in front of somebody who knows more than they do.
Take risks, because that’s at the core of learning a new language. Be a child again, all the naysayers be damned.
2. Practice the magic of spaced repetition
To be able to say you’ve really learned a language, you have to be able to summon it at will. I’m not just talking about knowing a language enough to pass the midterms and then forgetting it a week later.
But how do you learn a language and have it stay with you for the long term?
The answer: Spaced repetition.
Spaced repetition is the result of over a century’s worth of study and research, from the “forgetting curve” hypothesized by Ebbinghaus (1885) to H.F. Spitzer’s retention experiments (1939) to Hintzman’s studies on the “spacing effect” (1969).
These came together in Wozniak’s algorithm (1994) for optimal timing of exposure—which calculated the time and number of repetitions that make for effective learning.
It’s not just repetition that creates learning—it’s retrieval (the active recall of what one has learned) that’s been shown to bolster learning.
Active retrieval isn’t passively looking at some words on a page. Active retrieval is closing the book and mentally going through what you’ve learned or memorized from it.
It’s been shown that active retrieval leads to better recall.
In one study, students were asked to study foreign language word pairs. One group was asked to simply look at and read them over and over. The other group was told to study by actively recalling (thinking about) the other word in the word pair, instead of looking at them.
Guess which ones did better when tested later? Yep—the researchers found that the students who studied under active recall conditions outperformed their repetitive-studying peers.
The same researchers looked into the effectiveness of massed repetition/massed retrieval versus spaced repetition/spaced retrieval. Mass repetition is commonly referred to as “cramming,” which hordes of students swear by.
That study showed that students in the massed repetition group, asked to actively retrieve a piece of information three times, were outperformed by students in the spaced repetition group, where active retrieval was spaced throughout the session.
In short, cramming might get you by, but for excellent results, go for spaced repetition. So rather than studying six hours straight, you will do better by doing three two-hour sessions.
This body of research really gives new life to an old tool—good old flashcards.
These are a pretty typical staple of studying new vocabulary (for good reason!). Because translations are written on opposite sides of the card, learners are given the chance and the time to perform active retrieval processes. They can try to recall or even guess what’s written on the other side before finally looking.
Today, thanks to technology, you don’t have to manually take out your deck and choose which cards to study.
This is what used to happen: You look at the English side of each vocabulary card and try to give the translation. Your hits go in one pile and your misses in another. You take the misses and try to get them right them a second time. Again, you have hits and misses and again you take the misses and try to nail them a third time.
And so on and so forth.
But today, flashcard applications do the sorting for you automatically so you can focus on the learning. Flashcard apps typically have spaced repetition algorithms designed to exactly pinpoint the optimum timing of exposure to certain cards.
That is, the word pairs you know are shown less, while the word pairs you struggle with are more frequently revisited. And, with spaced repetition technology, you get to avoid massed repetition altogether.
3. Combine music and language
Music and language are kindred spirits. Think of music as language with tap dancing shoes. Music is language with a beat—skipping, hopping and twirling on melodic cue.
Research over the years points to the intrinsic connection between language and music.
Before, we used to think of music and linguistic functions as residing in different hemispheres of the brain, music engaging the right hemisphere and language localized on the left.
Advances in brain imaging technology have shown scientists how the two functions actually share many common neural underpinnings.
In the study above, researchers found that phonological awareness, a linguistic skill most useful in reading and writing, is actually related to pitch awareness and musical ability. Further, researchers have also discovered that people who speak a tonal language as their first tongue (like Mandarin speakers) have enhanced sensitivity to pitch changes.
Beyond that, a study has unveiled that musicians actually have a heightened ability to pick up language.
People who spend a lot of time working with music have inadvertently honed their linguistic skills. So banging your drum, strumming your guitar or tickling the piano keys can have language learning payoffs!
The growing body of research supporting the connection between language and music can mean only one thing—you can use music to boost your language-learning.
Songs are really just an example of language spoken with a heightened melody. The repeating pattern means your mind can easily latch on to it. It sticks and facilitates long-term embedding of the language in the working memory.
Here are some musical language learning ideas:
- Mine songs for language gems. You can learn vocabulary, catchy turns of phrase and whole sentences from song lyrics. Songs provide a solid context and an engaging story that ties all the words and phrases together.
- Use music videos to add another layer of stimulation. The visuals in music videos work with the lines, making them more meaningful and memorable.
- Listen to children’s songs if you’re a beginner. These are typically short and catchy, and the language involved is simple and will help you learn the most common words and phrases of the language.
- Put grammar rules to melodies you know well. This is the reverse of learning from pre-existing songs. Instead of repeating that grammar rule over and over, sing it to the tune of a familiar melody. (“Despacito”, anyone?)
The rich context of songs is something that’s often underutilized and underappreciated in language learning. It will make it easier to commit new words, phrases and grammar rules to memory, since you’ll have real-world examples of them put into practice.
4. Use enjoyable content to learn language
Language can be learned more effectively when placed in a vivid context, as we just saw with songs and music. That’s because, in reality, language doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Words gain meaning through a specific context.
And there’s no better provider of context than content. In this case, content refers to subjects or topics taught in the classroom, though things like stories and movies also count as great contextual presentations of language.
Heard of CLIL? It stands for Content and Language Integrated Learning. The idea is that instead of teaching language itself, teachers discuss a whole different subject, like history, but use the target language as the medium of instruction.
So instead of teaching French or German, you’ll get World History taught in French, or Philosophy taught in German.
You’re really hitting two birds with one stone. You’re learning a subject and a language at the same time. (Granted, teaching a subject using a language not mastered by one’s students is a challenge, but skilled teachers have been able to meet this challenge.)
CLIL students benefit from this setup because instead of using traditional language materials like textbooks, they’re shown the language in live, real-world situations. The language experience becomes more authentic.
This study from 2008 compared linguistic achievements by CLIL and non-CLIL classes in Hungary. In the CLIL classes, English was used as the medium of instruction for different high school subjects. The study found that students from the CLIL classes displayed better functional English proficiency than those from the traditional language learning classes.
The CLIL students displayed more comprehensive vocabulary, more nuanced grammar, more conversational skills and better understanding. Nowadays, more and more institutions are encouraged by the benefits of CLIL and are adapting their classrooms to this design.
This is all well and good for language learners fortunate enough to find or be placed in a CLIL-style classroom. But what about those who don’t plan on spending any time in the classroom?
Well, you can find content of your own! The key is to combine the language with something that you’re interested in.
If you love technology and enjoy reading about the newest smartphone, then read about phone-related stuff in your target language. Listen to gadget reviews, explore websites and read the comments sections used by native speakers. Do this in the guise of learning more about smartphones.
You can do this with any subject and language combo:
- Love gardening? Find a gardening guidebook in Japanese.
- Are jokes and funny stories your thing? Give a German collection of jokes a try.
- Always listening to music? Find some Korean pop artists you like.
Lo and behold, you’ll pick up vocabulary and phrases that you’re more likely to use on a daily basis.
If you’re going to apply this to your studies, the key is to start with simple materials. Choose short videos, or pick up book titles geared towards children. A 600-page treatise on German Philosophy will just go over your head right now.
One starting point could be the language learning program FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Combining your interests with your language learning means you’ll be improving while engaging in two of your passions at the same time—literally a win-win.
More Language Learning Resources
Now that you know how the science of language learning works, keep learning in ways that align with it. Here are some more helpful posts you can check out:
These research-backed insights can help you pick up a language in record time.
Apply them to your language learning journey and you’ll immediately reap their benefits, as well as the many benefits of learning another language. I wish you the best!
And One More Thing...
If you dig the idea of learning on your own time from the comfort of your smart device with real-life authentic language content, you'll love using FluentU.
With FluentU, you'll learn real languages—as they're spoken by native speakers. FluentU has a wide variety of videos as you can see here:
FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.
Didn't catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover your mouse over the subtitles to instantly view definitions.
You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU's "learn mode." Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You get a truly personalized experience.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store.