Why can’t I learn a new language?

July 8, 2008

Adults, even the brightest ones, often struggle with learning new languages. Dr Nina Kazanina in the Department of Psychology at the University of Bristol explains why.

People comprehend their native language with great speed and accuracy, and without visible effort. Indeed, our ability to perform linguistic computations is remarkable, especially when compared with other cognitive domains in which our computational abilities may be rather modest.

For example, an average person is infinitely slower than a computer when it comes to adding up numbers or remembering facts. On the other hand, most humans surpass computers when it comes to language-related tasks such as recognising sounds and words, and comprehending sentences.

My work deals with one aspect of language processing, namely, the identification of sounds, which is needed for subsequent word recognition. Sound recognition is a complex task, because the same sounds may be spoken differently depending on the speaker’s sex, age, pitch of the voice or mood. In addition, people may whisper or shout, be in a quiet room or a noisy street. All of these, and many other factors, lead to huge variation in individual acoustic instances of the same sound. It is precisely this acoustic variation that for decades has caused problems for computational linguists and speech engineers building automatic speech recognition systems. Humans, however, even five-year-olds, can successfully recognise sounds and words and under-stand what other people say almost instantly.

So what allows humans to be so efficient at sound recognition and how does that impact on our ability to learn a new language? In order to answer this question, we used non-invasive techniques called electroencephalography and magneto-encephalography, which record electromagnetic signals from the brain while people listen to different speech sounds. We focused on activity in the auditory cortex, a region in the temporal lobe of the brain that is responsible for processing sound information. The results show that the auditory cortex of an adult speaker selectively preserves variation in speech that is meaningful in the listener’s language and disregards variation that is irrelevant for word meaning.

The learner may find themselves a prisoner of their native language

For example, in English the difference between the sounds ‘r’ and ‘l’ is meaningful and serves as a basis for distinguishing words like rice and lice or rack and lack; consequently, this difference is highlighted by the auditory cortex of an English speaker. On the other hand, a Japanese speaker’s brain will not notice the difference between ‘r’ and ‘l’ right away, because in Japanese these two sounds are used interchangeably. This strategy, which highlights only conceptually important variation in sounds, ensures the quickest way to interpret a word’s meaning.

Hence, what the brain perceives is not fully determined by the physical input to the ear but rather is filtered through the listener’s native language. Such selective – if not biased – perceptual abilities of adult listeners develop through their language experience during early years of life. As a result, the brain is wired optimally for the first (native) language communication. Unfortunately, this wiring may be less than ideal for learning a foreign language. The learner may find themselves a prisoner of their native language ‘regulations’ and be unable to perceive additional sound contrasts that are important for the new language. We are now trying to identify whether representations in the auditory cortex change as a result of continued exposure to a foreign language.

Source: University of Bristol

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4 / 5 (4) Jul 08, 2008
"We are now trying to identify whether representations in the auditory cortex change as a result of continued exposure to a foreign language."

Having taken a serious stab at Chinese with some success, I'll put my bet on 'yes'. The assumption that the answer would be yes is why I didn't give up on their letter 'c' and kept attempting to form the consonant in the way I was told despite not personally being able to hear the difference (and always getting it wrong anyway). Somewhere along the line I was surprised to see that the difference had become obvious. There are surely hundreds of millions who've had a similar experience.
5 / 5 (2) Jul 09, 2008
"We are now trying to identify whether representations in the auditory cortex change as a result of continued exposure to a foreign language."

I also believe the answer to this question is 'yes'. But I also think it has a lot to do with the level of immersion and persistence of the learner. I think the learner can make a conscientious effort to guide their own development in language acquisition.

I lived in Japan for 3 years teaching English and have experienced both sides of the equation. I noticed that one of the things that separated my students who improved quickly from those who didn't was attention to details in pronunciation and intonation. I think the students who stopped to correct their own mistakes, were teaching their brain not to think in the context of their own language. Also I noticed students who spent time abroad exposed to natural english were much more likely to excel in class.

I myself spent my first year just listening to and inputing the sounds of Japanese. At first I didn't learn many words at all and was very frustrated. But because of my insistence on correct pronunciation, I mastered the sounds well. Now that I can listen to Japanese, I am learning new words much faster and have reached a conversational level in Japanese.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 09, 2008
Having lived in several different countries and spent several years of my life just learning other languages I will say that a person's perception of sounds changes. A person becomes more acutely aware of the sound variations available to human speech.
If someone seriously wants to learn a foreign language, taking a practical course in phonetics will prove to be extremely valuable. This will help you understand sounds and how to make them. This in turn will help you sound much more native from the start of your language learning process. With phonetics you can learn how to make every sound known to human speech and also how to write that sound down so that you can repeat it later exactly the same way it was originally intended. It is very distracting in a meeting to have somebody 'talking' a foreign language but yet murdering the pronunciation. The CEO suddenly looks like a second grader and it is hard take seriously what they are saying.
not rated yet Jul 12, 2008
After forty years of living in Germany, my comprehension and proficiency in German surpasses that of my "native"
language - American English - in all aspects of - reading, writing, and speech. The level of comprehension and proficiency in both languages for reading, writing and speech is, at the very least, post graduate level.

"The results show that the auditory cortex of an adult speaker selectively preserves variation in speech that is meaningful in the listeners language and disregards variation that is irrelevant for word meaning." is pure conjecture - an assumption. Show me the results and I'll show you misrepresentation and misinterpretation of data.

Those raised bilingually (or multilingual) will assert that the language they are using is one language - no matter what they are saying, writing, or reading - a switch to the "other" language can take place anytime, anywhere, effortlessly, during any of the three modes of communication - reading, writing, speech - word for word, if necessary.

Being a faculty member at a small university, I have met all the german-speaking people there - and was disappointed with their comprehension and proficiency in all three modes of expression - in "both" languages. Hardly what you would expect in an academic environment.

"The learner may find themselves a prisoner of their native language " - more conjecture, more assuming.

If I were God and I had create humans, their sole PURPOSE (as opposed to the word MEANING) in life, would be to learn. The human senses we have, point to this self-evident assumption. And it is the ONLY assumption you must make - irrefutable and devoid of internal and external contradictions.

The only thing the learner will find, is that he or she is prisoner to one sole purpose in life - to learn. Since life entails ALL of Nature, I don't mind being held captive - for awhile.

Good day to all of you in Bristol! When any of you publish in Nature, let me know. You won't find me here at Physorg.org anymore. I'm sure you and your Bristol colleagues will find more fertile Mist to dump here.

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