Science Has Just Discovered the Secret to Learning a New Language

When it comes down to it, practice really does make perfect.

This-Is-the-Secret-to-Learning-a-New-Language,-According-to-Sciencemichaeljung/ShutterstockWhen it comes to learning a new language, the old saying “practice makes perfect,” actually has some merit. A new study that focused on how language is acquired in the brain, found that repetition is an important part of the language learning process.

The study done by Lilli Kimppa from the University of Helsinki looked at the ways our brains respond to new words over short periods of exposure, Science Daily explains. For her research, Kimppa worked with Finnish-speaking volunteers, measuring their neural response with electroencephalography (EEG) during spoken tasks that included repeated words in their native Finnish language and non-native language. Words were presented for no more than 30 minutes in two conditions: “participants were either passively exposed to the spoken words in the background, or they attended to the speech. Similar neural enhancement to novel words was observed in both listening conditions.” At the study’s conclusion, it was found that exposure to quick, repeated novel words showed a response in the brain that suggests one had memorized the language.

“Unlike the response to existing words, new words showed a neural response enhancement between the early and late stages of exposure on the left frontal and temporal cortices, which was interpreted as the build-up of neural memory circuits,” Kimppa said. “The magnitude of this neural enhancement also correlated with how well the participants remembered the new words afterwards.” (Looking to learn new languages? Start from “hello“).

Through her study she was able to explore how volunteers’ previous language backgrounds would affect their word memory-trace formation, which is the process of how we’re able to memorize. The study revealed that there was a great response to new non-native words in volunteers with previous foreign language experience. This signals an increased “flexibility of the brain to acquire the speech with novel phonology.”

So what does this research mean for children learning new vocabulary words? Along with her study on adult volunteers, Kimppa also looked at “rapid neural word learning” in children ages 9 to 12 with dyslexia and normal reading abilities. Children who could read normally showed a faster response to a novel word within six minutes of passive perceptual exposure, but children with dyslexia demonstrated no neural change throughout the 11-minute test.

“This suggests deficient rapid word learning abilities of the brain in dyslexia compared to non-affected peers. Dyslexics possibly need even more repetition or different kinds of learning strategies to show the neural effect,” Kimppa said.