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You Need To Know This Science Of Learning Languages To Perfectly Master A Foreign Language

You Need To Know This Science Of Learning Languages To Perfectly Master A Foreign Language

Picking up a new language is not really that easy, but knowing more about the science of learning languages may help you speed up the learning progress. Belle Beth Cooper has shared her views on Crew Blog:

I’ve been attempting to learn French for a while now, and it’s a slow process. It’s all much harder this time around than it was to learn English, my first language. All this effort made me wonder if there were some tricks to learning a foreign language that I’d been missing. It turns out, it’s just a tricky thing to do once you’re an adult.

How we learn language

Learning language is something we’re born to do. it’s an instinct we have, which is proven, as one research paper says, just by observation:

To believe that special biological adaptations are a requirement, it is enough to notice that all the children but none of the dogs and cats in the house acquire language.

As children, we learn to think, learn to communicate and intuitively pick up an understanding of grammar rules in our mother tongue, or native language. From then on, we learn all new languages in relation to the one we first knew—the one that we used to understand the world around us for the first time ever.

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Although language is something we learn, research has shown that the instinct to do so is present from birth. Not only are we inclined to process and adopt language, but it seems that the human brain has common linguistic constraints, regardless of the language we’ve learned. Certain syllables, which aren’t common in any language, are difficult for the brain to process, even in newborns who haven’t started learning any language yet.

Learning a foreign language

When it comes to learning a second language, adults are at a disadvantage. As we age, our brain’s plasticity (its ability to create new neurons and synapses) is reduced. Following brain damage that causes a loss of speech, for instance, researchers have observed that children are more likely to regain the power of speech, by creating new pathways in the brain to replace the damaged ones.

One theory of why learning a foreign language is so hard for adults focuses more on the process we go through to do so, rather than the loss of plasticity. Robert Bley-Vroman explains in Linguistic Perspectives on Second Language Acquisition that adults approach learning a new language with an adult problem-solving process, rather than in the same way a child develops language for the first time.

Although this means adults generally progress through the early stages of learning a language faster than children, people who are exposed to a foreign language first during childhood usually achieve a higher proficiency than those who start out as adults.

There’s still hope, though. A study of secondary language pronunciation found that some learners who started as adults scored as well as native speakers. It’s also been shown that motivation to learn can improve proficiency, so if you really want to learn a language, it’s not necessarily too late.

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Give yourself the best chance

If you want to put in the effort to learn a new language, try these methods that are known for improving learning and memory.

1. Spaced repetition

Spaced repetition is a proven memory technique that helps you keep what you’ve learned strong in your mind. The way it works is you revise each word or phrase you’ve learned in spaced intervals. Initially the intervals will be smaller: you might revise a new word a few times in one practice session, and then again the next day. Once you know it well you’ll be able to leave days or weeks between revisions without forgetting it.

Here’s a diagram that shows how the “forgetting curve” drops less dramatically with each new repetition:

typical forgetting

    I like using Duolingo for vocabulary and phrase practice because it takes care of spaced repetition for me. The app keeps track of which words I haven’t practiced for a while and reminds me to strengthen my understanding of those. During each lesson, it mixes up familiar and new words to space out the repetition.

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    2. Learn before you sleep

    One of the many benefits we get from sleep is that it helps to clear out the brain’s “inbox” – the temporary storage of new information and memories from our time awake. We need sleep (even just a nap) to move anything we’ve recently learned into our brain’s long term storage. Once it’s safely stored, spaced repetition will help to strengthen the connection so we can recall the information faster and more accurately.

    3. Study content, not the language

    Although most language learning classes and progams focus on purely learning the language, a study of high school students studying French found that when they studied another subject taught in French instead of a class purely to teach French, the students tested better for listening and were more motivated to learn. Students in the standard French class scored better on reading and writing tests, so both methods clearly have merit.

    Once you’ve mastered the basics of a new language, try including some content on a topic you’re interested in to improve your understanding. You could have conversations with friends learning the same language, read articles online or listen to a podcast to test your comprehension.

    4. Practice a little everyday

    If you’re busy, you might be tempted to put off your studying and cram in a big chunk of learning once every week or two. However, studying a little every day is actually more effective. Because your brain’s “inbox” has limited space and only sleep can clear it out, you’ll hit the limit of how much you can take in pretty quickly if you study for hours at a time.

    Studying in small chunks every day combines spaced repetition with the best use of the brain’s temporary storage.

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    5. Mix new and old

    The brain craves novelty but attempting to learn lots of new words or phrases at once can be overwhelming. Novel concepts work best when they’re mixed in with familiar information.

    When you add new words to your vocabulary, try spacing them in-between words you’re already familiar with so they’ll stand out—your brain will latch onto them more easily.

    Et maintenant, c’est l’heure pour moi apprendre des plus mots francais!

    The Science of Learning New Languages | Crew Blog

    Featured photo credit: Paris, Montmartre, square Jehan Rictus. In 1936 was build this wall with 311 via shutterstock.com

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    The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

    The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

    It’s a depressing adage we’ve all heard time and time again: An increase in technology does not necessarily translate to an increase in productivity.

    Put another way by Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics,

    “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

    In other words, just because our computers are getting faster, that doesn’t mean that that we will have an equivalent leap in productivity. In fact, the opposite may be true!

    New York Times writer Matt Richel wrote in an article for the paper back in 2008 that stated, “Statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.”

    There’s a strange paradox when it comes to productivity. Rather than an exponential curve, our productivity will eventually reach a plateau, even with advances in technology.

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    So what does that mean for our personal levels of productivity? And what does this mean for our economy as a whole? Here’s what you should know about the productivity paradox, its causes, and what possible solutions we may have to combat it.

    What is the productivity paradox?

    There is a discrepancy between the investment in IT growth and the national level of productivity and productive output. The term “productivity paradox” became popularized after being used in the title of a 1993 paper by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson, a Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business.

    In his paper, Brynjolfsson argued that while there doesn’t seem to be a direct, measurable correlation between improvements in IT and improvements in output, this might be more of a reflection on how productive output is measured and tracked.[1]

    He wrote in his conclusion:

    “Intangibles such as better responsiveness to customers and increased coordination with suppliers do not always increase the amount or even intrinsic quality of output, but they do help make sure it arrives at the right time, at the right place, with the right attributes for each customer.

    Just as managers look beyond “productivity” for some of the benefits of IT, so must researchers be prepared to look beyond conventional productivity measurement techniques.”

    How do we measure productivity anyway?

    And this brings up a good point. How exactly is productivity measured?

    In the case of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity gain is measured as the percentage change in gross domestic product per hour of labor.

    But other publications such as US Today, argue that this is not the best way to track productivity, and instead use something called Total Factor Productivity (TFP). According to US Today, TFP “examines revenue per employee after subtracting productivity improvements that result from increases in capital assets, under the assumption that an investment in modern plants, equipment and technology automatically improves productivity.”[2]

    In other words, this method weighs productivity changes by how much improvement there is since the last time productivity stats were gathered.

    But if we can’t even agree on the best way to track productivity, then how can we know for certain if we’ve entered the productivity paradox?

    Possible causes of the productivity paradox

    Brynjolfsson argued that there are four probable causes for the paradox:

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    • Mis-measurement – The gains are real but our current measures miss them.
    • Redistribution – There are private gains, but they come at the expense of other firms and individuals, leaving little net gain.
    • Time lags – The gains take a long time to show up.
    • Mismanagement – There are no gains because of the unusual difficulties in managing IT or information itself.

    There seems to be some evidence to support the mis-measurement theory as shown above. Another promising candidate is the time lag, which is supported by the work of Paul David, an economist at Oxford University.

    According to an article in The Economist, his research has shown that productivity growth did not accelerate until 40 years after the introduction of electric power in the early 1880s.[3] This was partly because it took until 1920 for at least half of American industrial machinery to be powered by electricity.”

    Therefore, he argues, we won’t see major leaps in productivity until both the US and major global powers have all reached at least a 50% penetration rate for computer use. The US only hit that mark a decade ago, and many other countries are far behind that level of growth.

    The paradox and the recession

    The productivity paradox has another effect on the recession economy. According to Neil Irwin,[4]

    “Sky-high productivity has meant that business output has barely declined, making it less necessary to hire back laid-off workers…businesses are producing only 3 percent fewer goods and services than they were at the end of 2007, yet Americans are working nearly 10 percent fewer hours because of a mix of layoffs and cutbacks in the workweek.”

    This means that more and more companies are trying to do less with more, and that means squeezing two or three people’s worth of work from a single employee in some cases.

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    According to Irwin, “workers, frightened for their job security, squeezed more productivity out of every hour [in 2010].”

    Looking forward

    A recent article on Slate puts it all into perspective with one succinct observation:

    “Perhaps the Internet is just not as revolutionary as we think it is. Sure, people might derive endless pleasure from it—its tendency to improve people’s quality of life is undeniable. And sure, it might have revolutionized how we find, buy, and sell goods and services. But that still does not necessarily mean it is as transformative of an economy as, say, railroads were.”

    Still, Brynjolfsson argues that mismeasurement of productivity can really skew the results of people studying the paradox, perhaps more than any other factor.

    “Because you and I stopped buying CDs, the music industry has shrunk, according to revenues and GDP. But we’re not listening to less music. There’s more music consumed than before.

    On paper, the way GDP is calculated, the music industry is disappearing, but in reality it’s not disappearing. It is disappearing in revenue. It is not disappearing in terms of what you should care about, which is music.”

    Perhaps the paradox isn’t a death sentence for our productivity after all. Only time (and perhaps improved measuring techniques) will tell.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

    Reference

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