Starting Fresh: How Having No Language Experience Can Work to Your Benefit

You may think learning a language is easier when you have some background in it. This can be true in some aspects. But sometimes having no foreign language background can help you better learn a language, since you won’t have any bad habits to break! Here’s why.

The old adage that “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” may not really apply to learning a new language. In fact, it can be a detriment – at least according to one MIT study that found trying harder can make learning a new language more difficult. It’s long been thought that kids can learn new languages much easier than adults. Some say it has to do with the fresh slate approach that children have. They go into it not knowing a thing, which can actually open up the avenue for them to take in a foreign language.

Adults, on the other hand, have stronger cognitive abilities that can be a stumbling block in the acquisition of a new language. Kids’ so-called “sensitive period,” which lasts until the onset of puberty, makes them more adept at procedural memory, which includes tasks that come naturally such as riding a bike or dancing. Children pick up these skills through observation and experience due to neural circuits in the brain that assist them in absorbing and analyzing information.

Procedural memory starts working from the time we are infants. But as we get older, late-developing memory systems begin to set in as we start over-analyzing new language rules and sounds. In fact, adults work against themselves because we try to force the new language rules into pre-conceived notions so we can understand them better. In attempting to make sense of the nuances of the new language, we may actually be hurting our chances of learning it seamlessly.

Conversely, children take in information and don’t question it. Their minds are like sponges and they don’t have any preconceived notions that can trip them up. Things like pronunciation and grammar rules are what we pick up early in life, very quickly becoming second nature to us. Time says that while you can learn functionally as an adult, you’ll never sound like a native speaker.

How can adults improve their receptivity to learning a new language? There are a few things you can try to power down certain areas of the brain through the use of drugs or a process called trans-cranial magnetic stimulation. In this way, adults can be more receptive to the nuances, rules and sounds of a foreign language. For most of us, though, immersion in a language – even online – can do wonders for our ability to embrace a new language. Check out BRIC Language Systems to learn out an innovative way to pick up Portuguese, Mandarin or Spanish.