For adults, learning a new language is like learning how to play a musical instrument - over time, the brain "consolidates" the new information it has learned, researchers have found.
The new study builds on earlier findings that revealed that foreign-language immersion programmes are more effective than typical classroom training in teaching adults a second language. This type of exposure works by helping adult foreign-language students achieve the same brain patterns as native speakers.
"In the last few years, research has begun to suggest that adults learning a foreign language can come to rely on the same brain mechanisms as native speakers of a language, and that this might be true even for those parts of a foreign language that are particularly difficult to learn, such as its grammar," Michael Ullman, a professor of neuroscience at Georgetown University Medical Center and senior investigator of the studies, explained. "We confirmed this in our studies."
To identify and compare brain patterns following different types of exposure to a foreign language, the researchers first created a language consisting of only 13 words. English-speaking adults were taught the made-up language using either a classroom technique with a lot of grammatical explanation or an immersion method that relied on examples.
These initial findings, published in the August 2011 online edition of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, revealed that both teaching methods helped the adults achieve proficiency in the new language. The two techniques, however, triggered different brain mechanisms.
"Only the immersion training led to full native-like brain processing of grammar," noted Ullman. "So if you learn a language you can come to use native language brain processes, but you may need immersion rather than classroom exposure."
How the study was done
In the new study, published online in PLoS ONE, the researchers examined if adults could remain proficient in a second language - even if they are not regularly exposed to it. After learning the made-up language, the original study participants were surprised with a follow-up test an average of five months later.
"To our surprise, the participants actually became more native-like in their brain processing of grammar," Ullman said. "And this was true for both the classroom and immersion training groups, though it was still the case that only the immersion group showed full native-like processing."
The study authors suggested that learning a new language is like learning to ride a bike or play an instrument. Over time, the memories are solidified in the brain, they explained.
"Native-language brain mechanisms are clearly well suited to language, so attaining their use is a critical achievement for foreign-language learners," concluded Ullman. "We suspect that this should lead to improved retention of the language as well as higher proficiency over time."
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Learn more about second-language learning from the University of Washington.
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