You can pick up languages later in life if you live in this type of community

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It’s fairly well established that learning multiple languages can offer several boosts to cognition. The daily application of linguistics can improve memory, enhance our ability to multitask and even refine our decision-making capabilities. 

Despite the wealth of literature on the subject an infamous learning curve that says taking on new dialects after early childhood is exceedingly difficult seems to keep many from taking on the challenge.

Furnishing this assessment comes a new study out of The University of Washington. In it, a post-doctoral fellow in the UW Department of Psychology, Kinsey Brice and a team of researchers motion that mastery of a new language is best achieved by immersing yourself in several foreign ones, irrespective of age.

“This study shows that the brain is always working in the background. When you’re overhearing conversations in other languages, you pick up that information whether you know it or not,” explains  Bice. “It’s exciting to be reminded that our brains are still plastic and soaking in information around us, and we can change ourselves based on the context we place ourselves in.”

Engagement and retention

Initially, Bice and her team set out to study the English language specifically but after unforeseen circumstances, the team relocated their operations and a community composed of many diverse languages entered their notice.

With this new study sample, the authors began by recruiting 18 monolingual citizens in the areas surrounding Pennsylvania University- a region wherein 85% of the population is white and about 10% speak a language that isn’t English.

Follow-Up recruitment was enacted, helmed by then faculty author Judith Kroll over in southern California. Kroll and her team recruited 16 monolingual English speaking individuals from a community wherein 35% of the surrounding country is Caucasian and 44% hold a primary language that is not English.  

With two diverse models in the chamber, the researchers chose Finnish to demonstrate their hypothesis. This was because the language was not particularly prevalent in either area in addition to its challenging vowel requirements imposed on non-speakers.

For two hours at a time, each participant was tasked with learning 90 Finnish words via a card with a vocabulary word written on it, a corresponding picture that represents the word and a recording of the correct pronunciation of the word. Following administration, the respondents were asked to distinguish between real and fabricated Finnish vocabulary words. Before the final analysis, respondents were fitted with electroencephalography readers so that the researchers could monitor brain activity.

“Neurological measures show, millisecond by millisecond, how the brain processes what a person perceives. Behavioral measures can show a slight delay when compared to what’s happening in the brain because cognitive processes like decision-making and retrieving information from memory occur before a person answers a question or takes some kind of action,” Bice said in a press statement to Washington EDU News. “The results suggest an effect of ambient exposure to other languages.”

Miraculously in a relatively short amount of time, the participants from both target areas were able to distinguish between real and nonsense Finnish words that they had previously encountered even if neither seemed particularly adept at discerning between real and fictional words that they hadn’t yet seen. 

“In the end, because of the lab relocation, the study findings were serendipitous,” Bice added. “Further research could more formally control for various factors and expand the study pool. But this study shows the ways the human brain may absorb another language, itself a useful skill in a globalizing society, “