December 8, 2023

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Overthinking makes language learning more difficult

Overthinking makes language learning more difficult

Young children learn their language easily, precisely because their mental abilities are not yet fully developed. This is the result of an experiment in which adults who are less able to think quickly pick up frequently repeated “words” from a stream of random sounds.

The subjects were given a long stream of passages (…be ta ro go di tu pi ro go la bu da ku pa di ta go la bu be ak uk go…) while watching a silent nature movie. Specifically, the least cognitively awake subjects were those who later found out that they remembered more often on a test, for example, a three-syllable set. Gulabo He spoke relatively often in the series, as written by an international team of linguists led by Eleonor Smale (University of Ghent) This week in PNAS.

The experience is a simulation of the way that – according to many linguists – children pick up on their language: by noticing (unconsciously) all kinds of statistical regularities in the sounds spoken around them. In experiments, some in about 100 people artificially reduced their level of cognitive alertness. In one of the experiments, right before the experiment, part of their brain was temporarily weakened by a powerful magnet. This included the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex: an important coordination center for conscious functions such as planning, cognitive flexibility, working memory, and abstract thinking. In the other experiment, some people have to take mentally stressful tests beforehand.

Korsakov patients

According to the researchers, being ‘temporarily cognitively impaired’ did better in ‘language detection’, demonstrating that the conscious memory system and other cognitive control systems can get in the way of the unconscious more ‘brutal’ statistical learning mechanisms that It plays an important role in children’s language acquisition.

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Director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in Nijmegen Peter Haggort, who was not involved in this research, also sees “very convincing” evidence that cognitive control is not necessary for detecting statistical patterns from the environment. Beck. It’s the same a few years ago Similar search It was conducted with Korsakov patients who, despite (or rather: thanks to) their failing conscious memory, were better able to pick up implicit grammatical structures. This search was done with hidden patterns in the pictures that people had to describe. Haggart: “If this cognitive control was not really necessary, it would be useful to present the same language structures during sleep as well. Cognitive control is also greatly impaired.” Haggort doubts whether the research has a direct practical use for adults. “When learning a second language, you rarely have to deal with repeating the same set of words.”

The results of this experiment are clearly in line with previous research, and Heike Behrens also emailed when asked. She is Professor of Cognitive Linguistics and Language Acquisition at the University of Basel and was not involved in this research. No wonder there is so much research like this, she notes dryly, “because pattern recognition and statistical learning are just one of many factors in language acquisition, but one that you can experiment with relatively easily.”

Adults seem to learn language better than children, in less time

There are a lot of other factors that can make ripening easier. Burns recalls a study conducted in Nijmegen in the 1990s: “Students spoke more easily in their second language after they had had a glass of drink. With less inhibition and more self-confidence.” But: if they drink more, this effect disappears again, due to the general cognitive decline caused by too much alcohol.

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According to Berens, the new PNASResearch really fits perfectly into the decades-old “less is more hypothesis.” This means, among other things, that children can recognize words so well precisely because they have a smaller working memory, that they automatically focus on smaller syllables in the sound streams. But on the importance of that smaller memory criticism tooPrecisely because many adults talk to young children in a very special way in which separate words are emphasized.

Children take years

And it is precisely this increased insight into the complex environment in which children learn language grow that Behrens makes a surprising closing comment. Because these kids are really good at language learning? “No, it is now increasingly clear that adults are learning a language better, in less time. That is because the time it actually takes children to acquire language has always been underestimated, years! And look at the conditions in which adults are learning language. They don’t spend much less time Only from children, but their presentation in this foreign language is much worse in quality and quantity than that of children.Parents pay a lot of linguistic attention to their children!Parents also usually know exactly which language supports their children’s needs, and they give this support again and again.You can see From many children with language delay this does not always go well.”

The successful acquisition of a second language, which children can learn very quickly, also depends largely on the circumstances. “Otherwise, why could language delay immigrant children be such a problem?”