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Should I Keep Trying to Learn a Foreign Language?

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Q

I know that learning a foreign language is supposed to be good for brain health. But I’ve tried and find it extremely difficult. Should I keep trying?

A

Yes. Language processing is one of the brain’s more complex tasks, so learning a second language will strengthen your brain’s ability to focus. The bilingual brain is more flexible since it must switch tasks, inhibiting one language while speaking, writing or reading with the other. Some studies have found that even a short period of exposure leads to differences in the structure and function of the brain.

But new research has found what many people may already know–that learning a second language is easier for some people than others. That’s partly because of naturally stronger connections in the language centers of their brains. In a recent McGill University study, English speakers underwent brain scans before taking an intensive 12-week French course. Those whose brains showed stronger language connections had an easier time learning French. These language connections in the brain can be developed in people who don’t naturally have them, but it will take time and require more effort. It can be frustrating to feel like you’re not making progress in your quest to learn a second language, but don’t give up.

Try to find your sweet spot—the place where learning new words and phrases may be difficult but not so hard that you lose your motivation to keep going. You may want to break up your lessons into small pieces. Memorize a few words or phrases at a time, then move on to something else when you’ve learned that. Learning a new word a day would be a reasonable goal.

The rules of learning are, in general, similar across all ages. However, older adults tend to have more knowledge than young adults, and there’s research suggesting that the learning process might benefit from linking the new information to prior knowledge. For example, someone who is trained in engineering might benefit from learning words related to that field.

And, if you can, practice with someone who speaks the language you’re learning. Just a bit of practice—even if you know only a few phrases—will help you stay motivated to keep going!

Source: Arturo E. Hernandez, PhD, professor of psychology, University of Houston, and director of the university’s Laboratory for the Neural Bases of Bilingualism. He is also the author of The Bilingual Brain. Date: June 1, 2017 Publication: Bottom Line Health
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