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What makes adults worse language learners than children? 

Have you ever experienced a sudden improvement in your speaking skills after binge watching a series or reading a book? Or the opposite, being stuck and almost unable to speak after studying a lot of grammar and vocabulary? What happens in the brain, then?

And why do you think children learn languages much faster and more easily?

In language learning we often distinguish two processes which are based on two different memory systems:

  • the actual learning based on declarative memory (memory for facts and rules) as it happens in the classroom (Zoom conference?) with a book (a set of tasks) and a teacher. That is explicit learning.
  • language acquisition based on non-declarative (implicit) memory (memory for skills, procedures and knowledge we can’t put into words). It’s a more natural process of picking up a language without realising it while doing something else (like children do or like adults pick up some phrases while on holiday). Also called implicit learning.

The problem is that these processes involve different parts of the brain and these memory systems may compete (!).

Explicit learning happens in the prefrontal cortex – this is where our attention, reasoning, planning, and self-control sit. This is how we often approach language learning in adulthood: with a book and a set of objectives to achieve.

This part is not yet developed in children (not until early adulthood), so they learn a language through games, crafts, discussion, drama, reading and videos. They just absorb it from the environment, and their little brains figure out language patterns by themselves.

It may seem that, once adults, we should learn a language consciously, as a set of rules or lists of words that have to be memorised. But how easy is it to spontaneously use them in a real situation? Not once, in my own language experience, have I found myself completely at a loss having little problem with studying languages by books. As if what I learnt there had very little to do with real life. Disappointing, huh?

As it turns out, “growing evidence suggests that language learning depends largely on non-declarative memory” because “much of language is built on patterns and probabilities rather than precise facts and rules.” So the more we, as adults, try to “focus and learn”, the worse the result we get: “intentionally trying to learn specific information can get in the way of unconsciously learning probabilities, patterns, intuitions, and other experience-based understanding.”

The solution?

Use both systems. Books are wonderful to structure your language learning journey. They help you not to get lost and to measure your progress as you climb up the levels. Taking notes and organising them will engage your declarative memory (so you’ll know where to find something if you forgot it). Planning and goal setting will help you establish your learning routine.

But we also need to just engage with the language and experience it (enjoy it!) to let our brain soak it up. Try to “turn down” the activity of your prefrontal cortex, for example by listening to the music in the background, doing some exercise before studying, or focusing on the content first (not the language) like it is with watching movies and series or reading interesting books. Or getting out there and living the language 😉

Read more about the topic in the article: Why are adults so bad at learning new languages? We may be trying too hard

Photo by lilartsy on Unsplash

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