Learning a new language is no walk in the park, and as a second language learner, you may sometimes feel as though you’re fighting a losing battle. But while a large majority of second language learners find it very difficult to learn a new language, some seem to breeze through this process with relative ease.
Learning the reasons behind this difference can give us vital insights to improve the speed at which we learn new languages. Is there some sort of mechanism in some people’s brains that helps them learn languages faster? Or are they just doing some things differently?
While the whole ordeal may seem a bit daunting and enigmatic at first, by no means is the process behind learning languages beyond our ability to understand. Luckily, the field of language learning has seen some significant discoveries in the past few decades, and recent studies have even managed to identify certain factors that may affect our ability to learn languages.
Here at SuperEnglish, we have always been very dedicated to learning more about the process of language learning in order to design our products more effectively. In this article, we have examined these scientific discoveries and listed some of the most important factors described, so next time you are in a language class, you can be the envy of the group.
How Does the Brain Affect Language Learning?
Recently, the link between our brains and the ability to learn languages has become a very popular research topic. A whole new field called neurolinguistics has been established to uncover the mystery of this connection and identify which specific neurological factors may affect the way we process new linguistic input.
But what exactly is it in our brains that causes us to process languages differently?
The Effect of Transverse Temporal Gyrus in Language Learning
Also known as Heschl’s Gyrus, TTG refers to the series of bumps located in the lateral fissure of our brains. “The most posterior-medial half of which is the primary auditory cortex. ” Our primary auditory cortex, which is the part of our brain that processes sound input, has been shown to be linked to our ability to learn the phonological aspects of languages. A study conducted in 2008 showed that “subjects who could successfully form an association between Mandarin Chinese “pitch patterns” and word meaning were found to have transverse temporal gyri with larger volumes than subjects who had “difficulty learning these associations’ ”.
These findings are among the first to identify concrete links between the brain and the ability to process language. The amount of research related to TTG and language learning is still very limited, but building on these findings may prove incredibly useful in the future to boost our brains for language learning.
Are Children’s Brains Better Suited to Learning Languages?
1957 was a big year for neurolinguistics when Noam Chomsky first explained his theory of language acquisition in “Syntactic Structures” . In his work, Mr Chomsky explains that children learn languages exponentially faster than adults. He adds that the linguistic input they receive is not enough to explain the incredible speed with which they learn their native language and indicates that there must be some sort of mechanism in children’s brains that enables them to process language much faster than adults.
This is not only an incredible finding for neurology and linguistics but also presents a philosophical question. What makes Chomsky’s work incredibly exciting is that it points towards the possible existence of a creator entity by explaining that we are not born with blank slates, but with a pre-installed mechanism for learning a language. This, however, only applies to learning our native language and unfortunately doesn’t translate to learning a second language.
These findings are exciting, but we have no way of implementing these bits of knowledge into our language learning. So, what tangible steps can we take to learn languages faster?
How Do Different Learning Methods Affect Language Learning?
Another reason why some people may learn languages faster than others might be because they use better methods of language learning. Imagine yourself choosing a vehicle for a drag race. Would you rather choose to drive a lorry or a race car? While both vehicles will cross the finish line at some point, the driver of the lorry will probably not have as much fun as the others or be the first to cross the finish line.
The efficiency of your selected method may not be as apparent as it is in the example above, but it can be one of the reasons behind some people having an easier time with new languages. The methods outlined below are some of the most popular ones in second language teaching and have the highest chance of being the race car of your dreams.
Total Physical Response (TPR)
TPR is used widely in elementary language teaching. It involves carrying out commands as they’re given. For example, when using this method, the teacher may direct the student to ‘stand up’ while doing the action herself. Observing an actual instance of the action will help the student understand certain phrases better.
Admittedly, this method can only be used to learn tangible items. Using this method to learn concepts like ‘Gross Domestic product’, or ‘The Solar System’ may not prove very effective.
The Silent Way
The Silent Way is a rather simple one. In this method, the teacher presents a topic of discussion to the students and asks them to converse about it. This method is surprisingly effective as it is an almost exact simulation of what the students may experience in a foreign country.
Not having a teacher to guide you may be difficult at first, but that’s what makes it so effective! Through trial and error, you will develop new ways to express yourself and with this method, you will have a much better chance of retaining your newly developed language skills compared to some of the more inductive methods.
This method may not be suitable if you’re learning a language individually, but if you have access to a group of people, it may prove very useful.
So, Which Method is the Best?
It is impossible to pick a method to suit everyone, but some of the best language schools combine different methods for each language skill. While the audiolingual method may be more suitable to improve your listening skills, a method like memorization may prove more useful to improve your writing ability.
We recommend that you take the time to try different methods. Choosing one or more methods that you’re comfortable with will not only ensure that your learning process flows faster, but will also help you have a more enjoyable learning experience.
But the method by itself isn’t enough to explain differences in the learning rate of students. Have you realized how fast people learn a language when they visit a country where it is spoken?
How Does Exposure Affect Language Learning?
Another reason some people learn languages faster may simply be down to being exposed to the target language more often. Small things like changing the language settings of your electronic devices, or having a pen pal who speaks your target language can make all the difference in the long term.
You can see the power of exposure when looking at people who migrate to or spend a few months in a different country. It’s not uncommon to find people who learned the language in a matter of months after moving to another country. This is simply down to the sheer amount of language input they receive. Imagine everyone around you suddenly started speaking French. Not only would it be necessary to learn French in this situation, but you’d also have endless opportunities to practice with other people!
What if I Can’t Go to Another Country?
Moving to another country may not always be a viable option, especially if it’s just to learn a new language, but not to worry, because, with a bit of imagination and technology, you can create a near simulation of the exposure you’d receive.
Networking platforms like Cambly and Palfish are rapidly gaining popularity in language learning. The core idea behind these platforms is very simple. They simply match you with a native speaker of your target language for you to practice your skills. This is a great opportunity for those that don’t have access to people to practice with. If the cost isn’t an issue, these platforms are great ways to supplement your learning.
If for any reason you prefer not to use networking platforms, you can always practice by yourself! That’s right, it is as simple as creating imaginary situations through which you can practice using the target language. Or you can always use popular streaming sites to find resources like recordings of language tests.
As explained above, the ability to learn a new language depends on a multitude of factors. While it is still unclear how much each factor affects the speed with which we learn new languages, we can still use the current findings in the field of language learning to expedite our learning processes.
In this article, we have examined three of the most important factors that current scientific studies point at in language learning. Even though it is impossible to modify our neurological features to be more oriented towards language learning, we can still take certain actions to improve the effectiveness of our methods, such as choosing suitable methods and increasing our level of exposure to the target language.
This guide was designed to outline some tactics and strategies that may help you when learning a new language. By taking into consideration the factors described above, you too can be one of those people that seem to learn languages much faster than others.
 Liegeois-Chauvel, C., A. Musolino, and P. Chauvel. “Localization of the primary auditory area in man.” Brain 114.1 (1991): 139-153.
 Wong, P. C., Warrier, C. M., Penhune, V. B., Roy, A. K., Sadehh, A., Parrish, T. B., & Zatorre, R. J. (2008). The Volume of left Heschl’s gyrus and linguistic pitch learning. Cerebral cortex, 18(4), 828-836.
 Chomsky, N. (2009). Syntactic structures. De Gruyter Mouton.