Some adults think it’s fun to learn a second language. They are quick to recognize new sounds and remember words formed with new letters. These people acquire new languages like children do. They can absorb the language like a sponge.
“I think to me it’s kind of easy to learn two languages,” says seven-year-old Nathan Jimenez. His nine-year-old brother Eli agrees. “I feel like I learned English and Spanish at the same time.”
That sounds too good to be true for some adults stumped by a second language. Two professors at the University of Washington wondered what makes learning a second language easier for some adults, while for others, it’s nearly impossible. They did an experiment to find out.
Professor Brianna Yamasaki and Professor Chantel Prat carefully studied the brains of 19 volunteers. While the participants closed their eyes and rested, the professors recorded five minutes of eyes-closed resting-state electroencephalography. That’s a method that detects electrical activity in the brain.
Even at rest, the brain is active. The professors notice that some of the volunteers’ brains were busier on the right side than others. That’s the side of the brain that helps people reason and problem-solve. Both skills are important in language-learning.
The second part of the study took eight weeks. During that time, the volunteers learned French. The people who were the fastest at learning French were the ones who had more activity on the right side of their brain while resting. Remember? That’s the side that is most helpful for learning a new language. The study proved that resting brain activity matters.
God wired a child’s brain to create a map of languages. That map connects objects, images, feelings, and actions to new sounds. “Brain scans show that in a bilingual child, all the sounds of the child’s two or three languages share a single large map, a library of sounds from all languages,” says Dr. Arkady Zilberman.
When an adult tries to learn a second language, the brain’s already-established word map can get in the way. The map is set. It isn’t easy to add to it. Different letters and sounds are confusing to the adult because they don’t have a place on the existing word map.
Learning a second language can be like solving a challenging problem. It takes practice, patience, and hard work. But it’s not an impossible task, even for those who don’t have a quick second language-learning brain.
So what is young Nathan’s advice for adult second language learners? “Do not give up!”