A recent study from MIT found that trying too hard can actually make it more difficult to learn a second language. The researchers found that adults who try to learn a new language may have cognitive skills and strategies that are too developed, and can impede second language learning. In fact, the harder the adults in the study tried to learn, the worse they ended up doing.
They also found that adults and children have different strengths in language learning. Kids can pick up better on subtleties, while adults are better at growing their vocabulary. They report that the shift occurs sometime late in the teenage years.
I am fascinated by this finding–and as an avid language learner I can confirm anecdotally that it is true for me. It may be why many people say they feel more comfortable speaking a 2nd language after they’ve had a drink or two; perhaps the “loosening up” effects of alcohol play a part in this kind of experience. Regardless – I plan to just take it a little easier in my Italian class from now on!
Why does this matter? I have previously written about the protective cognitive effects that learning a new language can have. In terms of exercising the brain’s plasticity, learning a language is one of the absolute best activities you can do for the brain. Multiple studies have found that being bilingual can significantly stave off mental decline in aging and has positive cognitive effects in children and adults of all ages.
P.S. Did you know that you can use brain training to enhance your abilities in a foreign language? Or help you learn English as a second language? Check it out!