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Taking Time Off Learning to Learn a Language

It’s long been observed that children are often blessed with a propensity to learn new languages easily. When children are raised in bilingual households, they often master both languages spoken at home. If you’re an adult who’s attempted to learn a new language, you’ve no doubt pondered the question: Why can’t it be so easy for me?

Well, the truth is, it might not be nearly as hard as we think. New research shows that adults do in fact have the ability to easily learn a new language, and they can master it to the point of speaking it as though it’s their native tongue. For adults, it appears that some of what’s needed is proper training and a little time off.

In a study published in the March 2012 edition of PLOS ONE, researchers Michael Ullman and Kara Morgan-Short found that adult subjects who had been taught an artificial language to high proficiency – and then went several months without any extra exposure – showed no negative outcome on their language skills once they resumed their studies. In fact, their language abilities actually improved.

Ullman and Morgan-Short tested performance and neural processing during a period when their participants had no exposure to the second language. They discovered that taking time away from the language helped the subjects process the artificial language in a more natural and native way.

They also used two types of training in their study: classroom instruction and immersion. They found that the immersion groups showed an even greater ability to process the new language in a native way, indicating that training also has a large effect on a person’s ability to learn and retain a language.

Ulman and Morgan-Short ultimately concluded that new language learning – or what the researchers call L2 – appears to depend on a combination of forgetting and consolidation in declarative memory (consciously recalled memories, such as knowledge) and procedural memory (the memory of how to do things).

So, if you’re still thinking you can’t learn that language you’ve always been dying to speak, this study should give you some hope. Not only can you learn a new language, but you may even be able to speak it like a native. Time to get cracking… and then take a break.

Illustration by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig

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