Learning a second language is something that’s on a lot of our bucket lists, but it’s commonly thought to be difficult, if not impossible, to do as an adult. We often hear that children’s brains are like sponges that can soak in a language like it’s nothing, but once you get to be a certain age, you can kiss that ability goodbye.
That’s too bad because foreign language education in the U.S. isn’t consistent from school district to school district, according to the Pew Research Center, resulting in an adult population that, for the most part, speaks only English. (Only 25 percent of U.S. adults report speaking a language other than English, according to the 2006 General Social Survey.) By comparison, the typical European student is required to study more than one foreign language before they are a teenager.
If you’re one of the majority in the U.S. who can speak only one language—or if you know more than one and are jonesing to learn a third or a fourth—new research shows that our adult brains are not as set in their ways as we’ve been led to believe.
A recent study asked English speakers who learned Spanish as adults to read Spanish-language sentences that included grammatical errors and elements that don’t exist in English. The researchers wanted to know how quickly the non-native Spanish speakers could identify the errors and understand the tricky sentences.
They found “the brain is much more malleable and plastic for language learning even after childhood,” said researcher Eleonora Rossi, who teaches psychology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and University of California, Riverside. “There is not really a time constraint for language learning.”
Part of the test was related to word order. It’s commonly thought that adults have a hard time learning a second language because sentence structure isn’t consistent across different languages. For example, Rossi said, a direct translation of “Mary eats an apple” in Spanish would be “Mary an apple eats.” The researchers wanted to know if people who learn second languages as adults are tripped up by that.
The concept of grammatical gender is also foreign to English-only speakers. In English, a computer is just a computer, but in Spanish, “la computadora” is feminine and carries a feminine article, “la.” Remembering all of these rules can be really difficult, Rossi said.
But “these learners were able to acquire linguistic structures that were not present in their native language and they were doing as well as native speakers,” she said.
Rossi was quick to point out that children aren’t necessarily better at learning new things than adults are, they just learn differently.
“The way children are wired… is fundamentally different than the way adults are wired,” she said. “The general observation is that children are very fast at acquiring a different language. They learn a lot by imitation and absorbing the language… For adults we might have to go through hard-core rewiring, remembering grammatical rules. The way we learn is more explicit rather than implicit.”
Scientists are still trying to identify “the tools and underlying structures that allow people to learn throughout their lifetimes” and “what are the differences actually between learning” earlier and later in life, Rossi said.
“What our research points towards is that language learning is really for everyone at all stages of life,” Rossi said. “It might be one of the primary mechanisms to keep our brains fit and active. Despite people being afraid of learning new things, including new languages, our message is ‘Go for it.’ … It will enrich your sociocultural background, but it is also good for your brain.”
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.