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Can Having Highly Developed Cognitive Skills Stand in the Way of Learning a New Language?

By Rish Tanna

Learning a new language offers benefits that extend well beyond the social and cultural realm. Evidence suggests that in a bilingual's brain, both language systems are active when he or she is using or communicating in one. While this was once viewed as a disadvantage, studies indicate that this interference actually forces the brain to settle internal conflict, providing the mind with a workout that strengthens its cognitive abilities. Bilinguals may have to switch gears quickly in their day-to-day life. They may be talking to their mother in one language and their best friend in another language, almost simultaneously. This may explain why bilinguals switch tasks faster than monolinguals, according to an NIH funded study.

It's clear that learning a new language may be a way for one to sharpen his or her cognitive skills. But can having highly developed cognitive skills actually stand in the way of learning a new language? A new MIT study, led by Amy Finn, a postdoc at MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research, found evidence that having developed cognitive skills can, indeed, be an obstacle. According to the study, "when learning certain elements of language, adults' more highly developed cognitive skills actually can get in the way."

The full findings of the study, conducted by Finn and colleagues from the University of California at Santa Barbara, Stanford University, and the University of British, were published in the July 21 issue of PLoS One. Despite the fact that adults perform better than children in countless measures of learning and cognitive ability, children simply tend to hold the upper hand when it comes to language learning.

Children have what's called a "sensitive period" for learning language that lasts until puberty. During this time, they tend to have excellent procedural memory. This is the memory system involved in activities that are learned unconsciously such as riding a bike and dancing. It also may help children better understand and absorb subtle language rules and exceptions. Adults may use too much brainpower and try to unnaturally force language rules into sensible patterns. Grammar rules, however, may not fit into neat patterns like this. The MIT study found that adults are more likely than children to fail at detecting grammatical flaws and inconsistencies in sentences.

The advantages children have over adults in language learning are not universal, however. Adults have the potential to learn many components of a new language in a faster period of time. It's not too likely though that an adult will ever be able to sound like a native speaker when learning a new language. "Adults are generally better at picking up things that are going to immediately help them like words and things that will help them navigate a supermarket," according to Finn.

The lesson here is quite simple. One of the best lifelong gifts parents can give their young children is the opportunity, encouragement, and support to learn a new language. While learning a new language at an early age may help children boost their cognitive and multitasking abilities that carry on for life, having highly developed cognitive skills in adulthood may stand in the way of language learning.

About the writer

Rish is the founder of Seasoned Wordsmith, a content marketing firm in NYC. As a bilingual writer, Rish enjoys playing with words and reading about language-based studies.

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