By Kelly Dickerson
Many adults struggle to learn a second language, but not for lack of effort — the problem may actually be that they’re trying too hard, a new study suggests.
Scientists have long suspected that adults’ superior cognitive function might actually be a drawback in picking up a new language, giving kids the upper hand. In the new study, when adults were told to try to learn the proper sentence structure and grammar of a new language, the participants actually learned less than those who were not told they would have to take a quiz.
“The most surprising thing about the study is that trying can actually harm learning outcome,” Amy Finn, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, told Live Science. “Superior cognitive function is better for almost everything else.”
Trying makes it harder
To test how adults learn a second language, Finn and a team of researchers recruited 22 native English speakers and had them listen to 10 minutes of a made-up language. The vocabulary of the fake language consisted of nine two-syllable words, and each word belonged to one of three categories grouped by sound structure. The participants were told to color while they listened, so they would not focus their full attention on the language.
The researchers then gave the participants a test to see how much of the language they picked up. Each participant had to choose which of two words or which of two sentences was more likely to belong to the language they just heard.
In the second part of the study, 66 native English speakers took the same test. But this time, researchers told one-third of the participants to try to learn the vocabulary; they told another third to make an effort to learn the different categories of words (which was like learning noun classes in a new language); and they told the last third to try to learn the pattern that the categories appeared in (which resembled learning more-complicated grammar rules of a new language).
To make sure the participants paid close attention the whole time, unlike the people coloring during the first study, the researchers asked their subjects to press a button every time they thought they recognized some of the vocabulary or grammar patterns.