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New research shows adults -- not just kids -- are capable of learning new languages

Sunday, February 12, 2006 by: Dani Veracity
Tags: foreign languages, adult learning, adult education

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The Americanization and Anglicization of the world has enabled many Americans to become overconfident in English as the world's langua franca. In contrast to other countries, where foreign languages like English are taught in elementary school, Americans often don't begin foreign language instruction until high school. By this time, it's often difficult for a student to learn all the nuances of a foreign language, especially individual sounds.

For example, many Americans are surprised at how easily and accurately foreign exchange students can speak English, compared to the "Americanized" foreign languages that we speak. This puts us at a serious disadvantage globally, though the current prevalence of English blinds us to this potential downfall. However, like Latin, widespread use of English could dwindle, leaving us with no choice but to quickly learn the new langua franca if we are to stay afloat in the new world order. For this reason, we need to concentrate on the reasons behind adults' general difficulty to learn foreign languages.

The "critical period" hypothesis

Since its advent in 1959, educators and scientists have accepted Wilder Penfield and Lamar Roberts' "critical period" hypothesis as the cardinal reason why adults generally do not learn foreign languages as easily as children. According to Marianna Nikolov, author of the IRAL article, The critical period hypothesis reconsidered, "The critical period hypothesis (CPH) claims that there is a period during which learners can acquire a second language easily and achieve native-speaker competence, but after this period second language acquisition (SLA) becomes more difficult and is rarely entirely successful."

Though the CPH itself remains largely undisputed, scientists do not agree on many of its aspects, especially about the age at which this "critical period" ends. Some believe that people lose their ability to speak a foreign language with a native-like accent after age six; others, around puberty. However, according to S.D. Krashen's widely-cited perspective, adults can reach this level of proficiency as long as they have access to Universal Grammar.

Since Penfield and Roberts' creation of the CPH, neuroscientists have attempted to use medical technology to prove the theory. According to an article in Education Week, many scientists now believe that children's ability to learn may be connected to their bodies' better ability to metabolize glucose. However, as author Brad Marshall points out, "While there do seem to be distinct patterns concerning neural connections and glucose uptake that are related to age, both of which peak during childhood, they have not been shown to coincide with proficiency in a second language."

In a recent study, Karl Kim demonstrated that, when reading a foreign language, adult language learners separate the languages in their brains, using different sections for different languages. By contrast, children use the same portion of the brain for both native and foreign languages. However, Marshall states that there is no proof that the tendency of the adult brain to separate languages affects our ability to learn and become proficient in foreign language.

Adults' first languages "warp" perception of new languages

This lack of physiological evidence has prompted Marshall and many others to conclude that other factors must be involved in adults' relative difficulty learning foreign languages. This year, the results of two University College London-based studies demonstrated that adults' experiences teach their brains to ignore sounds that are foreign to their native languages. This enables them to pay more attention to the sounds that are meaningful in their native tongue.

At a University College London workshop, Dr. Paul Iverson explained this subconscious phenomenon: "Adult learning does not appear to become difficult because of a change in neural plasticity. Rather, we now think that learning becomes hard because experience with our first language 'warps' perception. We see things through the lens of our native language and that 'warps' the way we see foreign languages."

Drs. Iverson and Valerie Hazan found that it is possible to retrain adult brains to pay more attention to foreign speech sounds, which has enormous implications for adult language learning. Thanks to this study, adult language learners can learn foreign languages confidently, without the belief that they are somehow not physically able to learn new languages as well as children. And confidence does matter. As Marshall writes, "Madeline Ehrman and Rebecca Oxford, in one of the few studies to analyze age and psychological variables, have demonstrated that a learner's confidence in himself is more closely related to successful second-language acquisition than the learner's age."

Adults are capable of learning new languages

Now that you know you are not physiologically destined to fail at any attempt of learning a foreign language, you may want to put some time and effort into learning one, while taking note of a few things that will make your learning easier. Along with confidence, Nikolov believes that proficient foreign language speakers share a desire to sound like a native speaker.

As is the case with anything, you have to want to be successful in order to be successful. As Nikolov explains, proficient speakers put time and effort into becoming proficient: "All of the successful participants try to find chances for improving their second language proficiency, they are outgoing characters and like to socialize. All are avid readers in the target language, listen to the media and try to feel at home in the culture as well as in the language."

Interestingly enough, according to Nikolov, an earnest attempt to learn a foreign language by oneself is sometimes more successful than formal language instruction. If you want to learn a foreign language, you no longer have to worry that you're "too old" or lack access to formal instruction; it's all up to you.

Note from Mike Adams: I have found that learning a second (or third) language is made significantly easier by engaging in sound nutritional habits. Avoiding all the brain-harming toxins in foods and beverages (MSG, aspartame, hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, etc.) stops the brain from being damaged by these dietary poisons. Avoiding prescription drugs, which also impair cognitive function, is extremely important as well.

Once the toxins are removed, adding brain-enhancing foods and nutrients (raw nuts and seeds, healthy oils, fresh berries, and herbs like ginkgo) greatly enhances the flow of blood to the brain while protecting its delicate tissues from oxidative damage. Avoiding processed sugars and carbohydrates also stabilizes blood sugar levels, maximizing brain performance.

The result is a brain that simply functions better. When you follow a healthy diet, you effectively become smarter, quicker and more creative. The brain is a physical organ, after all, and if the brain isn't functioning well, it's almost impossible to learn new things (since "learning" is actually just the process of the brain making new connections).

My experience with learning languages backs this up. In my twenties, I was very unhealthy and struggling with learning to speak Chinese. Today, as a healthy adult in my mid-thirties, Chinese is easy to learn and speak, even with near-native pronunciation that most Americans can't even hear, much less speak. I've also taken up learning Spanish, a language I studied in college with great difficulty. Back then, I thought there was something wrong with my brain, because I just couldn't seem to learn languages very well. But today, Spanish comes to me quickly and easily. It's almost miraculously easy to learn. (I use the Pimsleur courses, which are outstanding.)

So much for the "age theory" of learning foreign languages. I think it has more to do with brain health than brain age, and the only reason most adults can't learn new languages is because they are suffering from the obvious effects of a lifetime of poisoning their bodies with processed foods, prescription drugs, toxic personal care products and other sources of non-natural chemicals. Take all the poison away, and you'd be amazed just how well your brain works! Just remember, the average adult walking around the United States today is drugged, poisoned and impaired when it comes to mental function. Is it any wonder they have trouble learning?

The experts speak on adult foreign language acquisition:

It is an accepted fact that the younger the child, the easier it is for them to learn a second language.
"New method helps adults pick up second languages more easily"

"Critical period hypothesis (CPH)"

The critical period hypothesis (CPH) claims that there is a period during which learners can acquire a second language easily and achieve native-speaker competence, but after this period second language acquisition (SLA) becomes more difficult and is rarely entirely successful (Lenneberg 1967). Researchers differ over when this critical period comes to an end. The strong version of the CPH claims that an authentic accent is not available unless SLA begins before the critical age (e.g.: Scovel 1988; 1995; DeKeyser forthcoming). Long (1990) suggests that the acquisition of native-like accent is not possible by learners who begin learning the target language after the age of six; Scovel (1988) argues that the critical period for pronunciation is around puberty, whereas in Krashen's (1985) view, acquisition is always available to adults as they have continued access to Universal Grammar.
"The critical period hypothesis reconsidered: Successful adult learners of Hungarian and English," IRAL 38:2 (2000) by Marianne Nikolov

Scientifically documented differences between an adult's and a child's brain have powerfully influenced people's beliefs about learning a second language. Since Wilder Penfield and Lamar Roberts first introduced the idea in 1959, many researchers have claimed that a biologically determined "critical period" for second-language acquisition ends at or around puberty. With advances in technology, the focus on which particular characteristic of brain development is responsible for successful language learning has changed. Thirty years ago, the "critical period" was said to coincide with the process of brain lateralization. The theory was that once specialized areas for various tasks, such as language learning, were formed, it would be more difficult to acquire a new language. However, when lateralization was found to be largely completed within the first years of life, attention shifted to the development of neurons in the brain: The greater the number of connections among neurons, the better one's capacity to learn. This has been followed most recently by research into how the body burns sugars, under the assumption that a greater use of glucose accompanies more efficient s20 learning. While there do seem to be distinct patterns concerning neural connections and glucose uptake that are related to age, both of which peak during childhood, they have not been shown to coincide with proficiency in a second language.
"Is there a 'child advantage' in learning foreign languages?" Education Week 19:2 (2000) by Brad Marshall

Other attempts by neuroscientists to link foreign-language learning and brain development have focused on which part of the brain is used for certain language tasks. Studies have demonstrated that different areas are activated during language processing, depending upon the age when the language was learned. Karl Kim and others have recently shown, for example, that when reading to themselves, late learners of a foreign language tend to use two distinct parts of the brain, one for each language, while early learners use only one area for both languages. Yet, as with similar studies, there was no evidence that different locations of brain activity are at all associated with different levels of language proficiency. In other words, younger and older brains clearly differ, but there is no proof that such differences have any significant effect on learning a second language.
"Is there a 'child advantage' in learning foreign languages?" Education Week 19:2 (2000) by Brad Marshall

To test this idea, a team led by Michael Chee, a cognitive neuroscientist at Singapore General Hospital, tested the ability of 30 young adults to learn words in French, a language none spoke. All of the subjects were native English speakers, but 10 years of studying Chinese had resulted in fluency for only half. Using magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers looked for differences in blood flow to certain parts of the brain.

Chee's team found a significant difference between a language juggler and a language struggler, they report in the 4 October online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Subjects who had been unable to master Chinese showed relatively greater blood flow in the brain while learning French vocabulary than did those who had become bilingual. This was particularly the case in the left insular, a part of the brain thought to handle unfamiliar words before they can be laid down in long-term memory. These subjects also showed greater activation in parts of the brain normally used during difficult mental tasks. Chee concludes that the brain is working less efficiently in one group than the other, which could explain why the same efforts in school seem to have yielded such different language abilities. It's still an open question whether these neural differences are the cause or consequence of differing language abilities, he says.
"The brain goes bilingual," Science Now (10/4/2004) by John Bohannon

"Children's advantage over adults is not physiological"

Scientists now believe that the difficulties are caused by our experience which teaches us to ignore certain sounds so that we are able to give our full attention to the sounds that (in our native language) matter most to understanding a sentence.
"New method helps adults pick up second languages more easily"

Two studies jointly worked on by Dr Paul Iverson and Dr Valerie Hazan, UCL's Department of Phonetics and Linguistics, have examined whether it is possible to retune how the brain processes speech sounds, and hope that their findings will help make language learning easier for adults.
"New method helps adults pick up second languages more easily"

Talking at the UCL workshop, which brings together specialists in language, speech and speech perception, Dr Iverson said: "Adult learning does not appear to become difficult because of a change in neural plasticity. Rather, we now think that learning becomes hard because experience with our first language 'warps' perception. We see things through the lens of our native language and that 'warps' the way we see foreign languages."
"Adults can be retrained to learn second languages more easily, says UCL scientist" Science Daily

Recent research has also shed more light on the important role of psychological factors in foreign-language learning. Many studies have revealed a relationship between successful acquisition of a second language and an acceptance or desire to become part of the new language group. Other research has focused on more internal elements, such as the need to achieve or the fear of failure. Madeline Ehrman and Rebecca Oxford, in one of the few studies to analyze age and psychological variables, have demonstrated that a learner's confidence in himself is more closely related to successful second-language acquisition than the learner's age.
"Is there a 'child advantage' in learning foreign languages?" Education Week 19:2 (2000) by Brad Marshall

"Why some adults learn foreign languages more easily than others"

As a result of the survey of the case studies I found that these successful language learners want to sound like natives, they share intrinsic motivation in the target language which is often part of their profession, or they are integratively motivated. These findings are in harmony with what other studies have found (e.g., Bongaerts et al. 1997; Ioup et al. 1994; 1995) despite the differences in the languages involved. These exceptionally successful learners work on the development of their language proficiency consciously and actively through finding chances for communicating with speakers of the target language, reading and listening extensively, though in contrast with the Dutch EFL learners intensive training in phonology has not been found typical. On the other hand, the findings of a recent study on advanced adult learners of German contradict both the present study and the study on Dutch learners. Moyer (1999: 98) found that few of their successful learners of German wanted to sound native or even to improve their phonology. As for the length of exposure, it seems that extensive stay in the host environment is not a necessary prerequisite, as all the Hungarian learners of English in the sample had spent only a limited time abroad.
"The critical period hypothesis reconsidered: Successful adult learners of Hungarian and English," IRAL 38:2 (2000) by Marianne Nikolov

The case studies of these most successful language learners have provided detailed information on how they have managed to become so good. All of the successful participants try to find chances for improving their second language proficiency, they are outgoing characters and like to socialize. All are avid readers in the target language, listen to the media and try to feel at home in the culture as well as in the language. For pedagogical reasons the two most impressive cases are worth describing. The German/English woman started her Hungarian through reading 'penny books' borrowed from the local library. First, she read these simple romances and then 'everything else available'. She never received any formal Hungarian instruction, similarly to the two successful speakers of Arabic in Ioup et al. (1994).
"The critical period hypothesis reconsidered: Successful adult learners of Hungarian and English," IRAL 38:2 (2000) by Marianne Nikolov

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