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Featured Article: When it hurts (and helps) to try: the role of effort in language learning

By Samantha Wallace

Few of us remember how easily we learned language as children. Although the acquisition wasn’t always graceful then—‘awry’ never sounds the same way aloud as the way I read it in my head— using our primary language as an adult is as habitual as tying shoelaces and seemingly as instinctual as smiling. Given how involuntarily we adults use our primary language, it’s shocking how difficult learning new languages as an adult can be. The authors of a recent PLOS ONE paper (Finn et al) postulated that the very functions we develop as our brains mature as adults may be what hinder us from mastering language the way a child does. We might, in fact, be “trying” too hard.

Researchers have shown in previous studies that adults outperform children in tasks that require attentional focus and effort. This is because the regions of the brain associated with these abilities—the prefrontal and parietal cortices—develop more slowly, and as a result, these abilities become stronger as we age. In other words, adult brains develop abilities that help us “try harder.” These same capabilities may, however, interfere with our capacity to learn some aspects of language as adults, like the tricky networks that underlie grammar.

To test the limits of our adult brains, the authors of “When it hurts (and helps) to try: the role of effort in language learning” tested participants on how well they learned an artificial language. In the first experiment, participants were instructed to simply listen to the word stream. In the second experiment, participants were told to identify patterns and categories within the artificial language.

Figure 1. Structure of the Artificial Language. Similarly shaded pairs were withheld from the stimulus presentation.

The researchers stimulated “effort” in the second experiment by tasking participants with a series of learning drills. Learners pressed buttons to indicate when they thought they had mastered a series of words or a grammar pattern. On the other hand, participants in the first group were explicitly distracted from learning. These participants colored during the experiment.

After the experiment, researchers scored both sets of participants on their ability to identify words, categories of words presented (for example: nouns), and the correct order of words in test sentences.

Based on the results of the test, the participants who were told to learn the language did not outperform the participants who merely listened in all categories. The “learners” were better than the “listeners” at identifying specific words of the artificial language, but both “learners” and “listeners” were equally successful in indicating the order patterns of words in test sentences. When it came to learning categories of words, only the listeners were significantly better than chance. The authors concluded that trying to learn may be a detriment to participants in this aspect of language learning.

Although fully developed prefrontal and parietal cortices endow adults with many advantages (think the ability to plan, reason, and problem solve, among others), according to the authors, these same adult brains may hinder us from learning some aspects of language. To become masters of the murkier depths of grammar, we may want to tap into the more intuitive methodology employed by children. In the meantime, we adults will continue to struggle with the differences between ‘who’ and ‘whom,’ ‘further’ and ‘farther,’ and the best way to retain complex information presented by grammar.

Citation: Finn AS, Lee T, Kraus A, Hudson Kam CL (2014) When It Hurts (and Helps) to Try: The Role of Effort in Language Learning. PLoS ONE 9(7): e101806. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101806

This post originally appeared on EveryONE blog as “If At First You Don’t Succeed, Sit Back and Listen” on July 22, 2014.

Samantha Wallace is a Senior Publications Assistant on PLOS ONE

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