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Greek To Me: Are Some Brains Better At Learning Languages Than Others?

It is widely known that children who grow up bilingual (in a household where more than one language is spoken) tend to have better success in learning even more languages as they grow up. And on the other end of the spectrum, there’s me. Someone who despite best efforts, can’t get past a few words and phrases in another language.

Evidently I’m not the only one. Young children have flexible brains, which at some stages are attuned to language development. Although it is still possible, of course, to learn a new language at any age, it just takes more work. And for some it may never turn to fluency.

Language experts say the answers are found in our brain. A 2016 study determined each of us has unique wiring in our brain that determines our language success. The researchers scanned the brains of English-speaking participants before and after undergoing an intensive 12-week French course. They found stronger connections between brain centers involved in both spontaneous speaking and reading speed were apparent in the better-performing participants. This could mean that some people are simply cognitively better equipped for language learning.

So what if you don’t happen to be one of the linguistically gifted? Hope is not lost! Language experts believe you can do pretty well by training your brain. As a starting point, some research finds that people who are more musical also have a better ear for language. Picking up the nuances and tempo helps language-learners go beyond word memorization.

And that is a key to success. Research from MIT even suggests that adults’ tendency to over-analyze hinders their ability to pick up a foreign language’s subtle fluctuations. This is not book learning after all.

There are a few methods that help people pick up a second language. One is to start with a language that is similar to your native tongue. Our brains have a preference for similar structures. The so-called romance languages from Europe are closer in grammar and characteristics than what we would encounter with Russian or Korean.

Determining what you expect from a second language is also important to how you go about learning and measuring success. If you plan to work in another country it would require much better mastery of the language than merely wanting to travel and communicate adequately.

For years, total immersion has been the gold standard in language learning. Since that is not possible or feasible for everyone, digital apps have filled the void with pretty good virtual programs that approximate all the ways we use language.

I have tried a few! With varying degrees of success. The Babbel app has taken me the farthest. It’s ‘secret sauce’ is to focus on conversational areas and then present the information in ways that require you to respond using different parts of the brain. Sometimes you repeat the words and phrases — the program listens for accuracy before letting you move on — other times you type in words or answers. Sometimes you translate and other times you conjugate.

It is not for the faint of heart. It takes time and commitment. Which is where I falter. Language teachers say the top reason people don’t learn a second language is because they don’t stick with it. Ouchie or oui to that.

In case you wondered, among the easiest languages for English speakers to learn according to Berlitz are:

Spanish
Portuguese
Italian
French
Swedish
Romanian
Danish
German
Indonesian
Malay

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