Five unusual, evidence-based ways to get better at a new language

Posted on July 10, 2019

1: Listen to the language, even if you don’t have a clue what’s being said – and you are not even paying close attention.
Researchers asked native Finnish-speakers to listen to Mandarin speech sounds while engaged in other tasks, and to do this for two hours a day on four consecutive days. Critically, even when they were instructed to ignore the sounds and focus on a silent movie, recordings of their brain waves (via EEG) suggested they were getting better at differentiating between the different Mandarin speech sounds. Researchers thus deduced that passive training may help real-life language learning. It can be played in the background while working out in a gym, or while cooking. This suggests that after a session of deliberately learning new vocab, hearing those words played in the background could help with learning.

2: Don’t try too hard with the grammar
Studies have shown that adults, as compared to children – perceive grammar differences between a vast range of speech sounds less easily. Part of the reason could be that adults’ more highly developed cognitive skills work against them. Findings shows that adults struggle with grammar learning because they try to analyse too much information at once.

3: Choose the right time of day – or night – to learn
Lynn Hasher and her team found that older adults (aged 60-82) were better able to focus, and tended to do better at memory tests, between 8.30am and 10.30am, compared to 1pm and 5pm. Scans of their brains suggested this was because by the afternoon, their ‘default mode network’ was more active – a neutral state indicative of daydreaming. Among young adults, however, other neural networks more associated with focused attention remained active into the afternoon.
Evening learning probably isn’t ideal for teenagers either. Johannes Holz at the University of Freiberg, and colleagues, found that 16- and 17-year-old girls performed better on tests of factual memory if they’d learned the material at 3pm than at 9pm. Findings show that sleeping after learning allowed for greater consolidation of these memories. This suggests that scheduling two study periods, one for close to bed-time, the other soon for after waking up, is an effective way to learn.

4: Take long breaks
This is a phenomenon called the ‘spacing effect” when planning your study schedule. According to research, one should aim to time the intervals between learning something and revising it based on what you will really need to recall it following a 10% rule. For example, if you have a test coming up in a month, then you should revise what you learn today in about 2-3 days’ time. But if you want to remember something over the longer term, so that your performance peaks in a year’s time, then it’s sensible to revisit that information once a month.

5: Have a drink
German volunteers learning Dutch who’d drunk enough vodka to achieve a blood alcohol level of 0.04 per cent (approximately equivalent to just under a pint of beer for a 70kg male) were rated by independent Dutch speakers as speaking the language more proficiently during a short-test (they had to argue in Dutch for or against animal testing), compared with the other participants who’d only drunk water beforehand.

Source material from Research Digest

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