TIME Brain

Want to Learn a Language? Don’t Try So Hard

If at first you don't succeed, trying again might not help you when it comes to learning languages.

A new study from MIT shows that trying harder can actually make some aspects of learning a new language more difficult. While researchers have known that adults have a harder time with new languages than children do, the latest findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, suggest that adults’ stronger cognitive abilities may actually trip them up.

Children have a “sensitive period” for learning language that lasts until puberty, and during these years, certain parts of the brain are more developed than others. For example, they are adept at procedural memory, which study author Amy Finn, a postdoc at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, describes as the “memory system we get for free.” It’s involved in tasks we learn unconsciously such as riding a bike, dancing, or subtle language rules. It’s a system that learns from observing and from experience; neural circuits in the brain build a set of rules for constructing words and sentences by absorbing and analyzing information—like sounds—from the world around them.

“The procedural memory is already in place for an infant and working well, and not interacting with other brain functions,” says Finn. However, as people age, another memory system that is less based on exploratory processes starts to mature, and control the language learning process. “As an adult, you have really useful late-developing memory systems that take over and do everything.”

In essence, adults may over-analyze new language rules or sounds and try to make them fit into some understandable and coherent pattern that makes sense to them. But a new language may involve grammar rules that aren’t so easily explained, and adults have more difficulty overcoming those obstacles than children, who simply absorb the rules or exceptions and learn from them. That’s especially true with pronunciation, since the way we make sounds is something that is established early in life, and becomes second nature.

“Adults are much better at picking up things that are going to immediately help them like words and things that will help them navigate a supermarket,” says Finn. “You can learn language functionally as an adult, but you’ll never sound like a native speaker.”

So how can adults remove their own roadblocks to learning new languages? Finn says more research needs to be done to determine if adults can ever go back to learning languages like children, but linguists are looking at a variety of options. A few include “turning off” certain areas of the brain using a drug or a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, which might allow adults to be more open to accepting new language rules and sounds.

Finn also hopes to study adults performing a challenging task while they learn a language, which is another way of distracting the cognitive portions of the brain from focusing on the new language, to see if that can help them to absorb more linguistic information.


Being Bilingual Keeps You Sharper As You Get Older

Picking up a second language, even later in life, can have benefits for the brain

People who speak more than one language tend to score higher on memory and other cognitive function tests as they get older, but researchers haven’t been able to credit bilingualism as the definitive reason for their sharper intellects. It wasn’t clear, for example, whether people who spoke multiple languages have higher childhood intelligence, or whether they share some other characteristics, such as higher education overall, that could explain their higher scores.

Now, scientists think they can say with more certainty that speaking a second language may indeed help to improve memory and other intellectual skills later in life. Working with a unique population of 853 people born in 1936 who were tested and followed until 2008-2010, when they were in their 70s, researchers found that those who picked up a second language, whether during childhood or as adults, were more likely to score higher on general intelligence, reading and verbal abilities than those who spoke one language their entire lives. Because the participants, all of whom were born and lived near Edinburgh, Scotland, took aptitude tests when they were 11, the investigators could see that the effect held true even after they accounted for the volunteers’ starting levels of intelligence.

Reporting in the Annals of Neurology, they say that those who began with higher intellect scores did show more benefit from being bilingual, but the improvements were significant for all of the participants. That’s because, the authors suspect, learning a second language activates neurons in the frontal or executive functions of the brain that are generally responsible for skills such as reasoning, planning and organizing information.

Even more encouraging, not all of the bilingual people were necessarily fluent in their second language. All they needed was enough vocabulary and grammar skills in order to communicate on a basic level. So it’s never too late to learn another language – and you’ll be sharper for it later in life.


What Does English Sound Like To Foreigners?

Ever wondered What does English sound like to foreigners?

Adriano Celentano’s “Prisencolinensinanciusol” is pure gibberish. The words don’t mean anything.

But the whole song was designed to sound like English — the way English sounds like to people who don’t speak it.

Ever done a gibberish imitation of a language you don’t speak?

Well, this is how non-English speakers mock you.

More of his work is here.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME Languages

Here’s How to Say ‘Hello’ In 21 Different Languages

From Croatian to Korean to Swahili to Swedish

Sick of greeting people with a boring old “hello” or “hey or “howdy there?” This infographic from LivingLanguage.com offers 21 other ways to say it. We definitely recommend busting these out to seem more worldly and cultured.

21 Ways to Say Hello

TIME Languages

Chineasy: A New Way to Learn Chinese Characters

The goal of my new book Chineasy is to allow people to learn to read Chinese easily by recognizing characters through simple illustrations and animations. By learning one small set of building blocks, students can build many new words, characters, phrases, and even sentences.

In the past year, I broke down thousands of common Chinese characters and analyzed how they are constructed. The process is just like a little boy breaking down lots of Lego models (a fire station, a boat, and maybe a space shuttle). This boy then starts classifying Lego bricks. He then realized that no matter how fancy and complicated the models are, they are all built out of the same set of Lego bricks.

In Chinese, most characters are built out of roughly 100 “building blocks.” I designed a program on my computer and then started prioritizing the most common and useful building blocks. In my computer program, I identified the correlations between each character until my screen was full of thousands of lines and tiny characters.

I then started using illustrations to help students memorize the building blocks. After knowing how to recognize those “building blocks” you can then carry on constructing loads more characters. I called those newly constructed characters “compounds,” meaning the characters which are composed of two or more building blocks.

Here are three examples: king, water, and cow.

  • King 王

    ShaoLan Hsueh—Chineasy/HarperCollins

    King is a very common surname in China. It is the Chinese equivalent of the name ‘Smith’ in Europe. Though we have illustrated King as a face, that character actually represents the universe: the three horizontal strokes represent Heaven, Man and Earth. The vertical stroke is the king who connects them.

  • King unillustrated 王

    ShaoLan Hsueh—Chineasy/HarperCollins

    The character for King 王 is often confused with the character for Jade 玉. As you can see both are very similar, except for the small line in the bottom right hand corner of the character. This confusion is compounded by the fact that in Simplified Chinese King 王 not Jade 玉 is a radical whereas in Traditional Chinese it is the other way around. Why is this? Well the Chinese language like all languages has been through 1000s of years of evolution. In China Jade is so highly valued that it was often associated with the King so it is unsurprising that the character was used interchangeably.

  • Water 水

    ShaoLan Hsueh—Chineasy/HarperCollins

    We all know what water is, we drink it every day, but it is important to realize that in Chinese, words can have many different meanings and uses especially when they are paired into phrases. In Chinese this character doesn’t only refer to water, it can also be used with other characters to refer to the qualities of water – clear, pure and liquid. When this character is used as part of a compound it transforms to look like this 氵 this character is known as ‘Three drops.’ A fun little phrase you can build with two of these characters is Buffalo 水牛 which is a combination of water 水 and cow 牛.

  • Water unillustrated 水

    ShaoLan Hsueh—Chineasy/HarperCollins

    Water is the source of all life. I think this is a beautifully fluid character that really represents its meaning. I used to remember this characters as different rivers joining together flowing to the ocean. Actually the original character from thousands of years ago actually depicted a river between two banks, but as with most Chinese characters the shape has changed considerably over the course of Chinese history.

  • Cow 牛

    ShaoLan Hsueh—Chineasy/HarperCollins

    Cow is a very common character in Chinese. It can be used to refer to bovine as a whole or be used as part of a phrase to be more specific. On top of this, you also see it on many menus (for beef!) and in any reference to prisons. “Why Prison?!” you might ask? Well, In ancient China cows were the main beasts of burden. At night they were kept inside to protect them from them predators, but the Chinese saw this as similar to indentured labor. So, a cow under a roof, which looks like this 牢 means ‘prison’ or ‘pen.’

  • Cow Unillustrated 牛

    ShaoLan Hsueh—Chineasy/HarperCollins

    The original character for cow from the Seal Script era looked like a cow’s heads with two horns. Over time the cow seems to have lost one of its horns, which is a shame. As with water, this character can also be used as an adjective which refers to the qualities of cows. When used in this format the character can mean ‘arrogant’ and ‘stubborn’. I have never known an arrogant cow, but stubborn seems apt.

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