5 unusual, evidence-based ways to get better at a new language
It's hard not to conclude that if you act like a child, maybe you'll learn as effectively as a child, too…
The last time I tried to learn a foreign language, I was living in an Italian suburb of Sydney. My hour a week at a local Italian class was inevitably followed by a bowl of pasta and a few glasses of wine.
As an approach to language-learning goes, it was certainly more pleasurable than my German lessons at school. Despite the wine, it was also surprisingly effective. In fact, getting better at a new language doesn't have to mean hard hours on lists of vocab and the rules of grammar. It turns out that what you don't focus on matters, too. And a glass of wine may even help …
Listen to the language, even if you don't have a clue what's being said – and you're not even paying close attention
One challenging aspect to learning a new language is that it may contain distinct speech sounds that, as a non-speaker, you can't even tell apart. This isn't a problem for young children – they only need to spend time around the new language to learn to hear the different sounds, simply through passive exposure. It's long been thought adults can't do this, but a study published in 2019 brings a more optimistic message and has implications for the best approach to adult language learning.
The researchers asked native Finnish-speakers to listen to Mandarin speech sounds while engaged in other tasks, and to do this for two hours a day on four consecutive days. Critically, even when they were instructed to ignore the sounds and focus on a silent movie, recordings of their brain waves (via EEG) suggested they were getting better at differentiating between the different Mandarin speech sounds. "For the first time, these results demonstrated that mere passive exposure to sounds can induce plastic changes related to change detection in the adult human brain, which was previously thought to happen only in infancy during the sensitive period," the researchers wrote.
The researchers added that this suggests passive training may help real-life language learning. They recommend listening to a language you want to learn while you're doing something else (as long as it's not too cognitively demanding) – while working out at the gym, or while cooking, perhaps.
A passive approach to learning could also be especially beneficial to older adults in the context of remembering new vocab. A 2013 study led by Lynn Hasher at the University of Toronto showed that older adults have a greater tendency than younger adults to process distracting information. While this isn't usually helpful, it does make them more likely to remember background information. This suggests that after a session of deliberately learning new vocab, hearing those words played in the background could help with learning.
Don't try too hard with the grammar
Not only can children easily perceive the difference between a vast range of speech sounds, but they learn the grammar of a language more easily than adults too. It used to be thought that this advantage ends at about the age of seven. However, again the picture has become more optimistic of late. For instance, in 2018, a team involving Steven Pinker at Harvard University concluded that in fact, the advantage lasts about a decade longer. Once we reach adulthood though, it does become harder to get to grips with grammar and also the structural components of words in another language.
Part of the problem could be that adults' more highly developed cognitive skills work against them. Consider a 2014 study by Amy Finn at MIT and colleagues that found the harder adults worked at the structure and use of units of an artificial language – such as root words, suffixes and prefixes – the worse they did. To learn this language "morphology", "at least in this artificial language we created, it's actually worse when you try," Finn comments.
These findings supported a theory, put forward in 1990 by the linguist Elissa Newport, that adults struggle with this aspect of language-learning because they try to analyse too much information at once. So what can you do? If you're listening to another language, don't over-analyse it, Finn suggests. There was a condition in her study in which some of the participants had to complete an undemanding puzzle or do some colouring while they listened to the artificial language – and it's telling that it was this group who performed best at acquiring the new grammar. It's hard not to conclude that if you act like a child, maybe you'll learn as effectively as a child, too…
Choose the right time of day – or night – to learn
Outside more formal educational settings, a lot of language classes tend to take place in the evenings, but it's worth considering experimental findings that suggest this isn't an optimum time for everyone, especially older people and teenagers.
For example, in a 2014 study, Lynn Hasher and her team found that older adults (aged 60-82) were better able to focus, and tended to do better at memory tests, between 8.30am and 10.30am, compared with 1pm and 5pm. Scans of their brains suggested this was because by the afternoon, their "default mode network" was more active – a neural state indicative of daydreaming. Among young adults, however, other neural networks more associated with focused attention remained active into the afternoon.
Evening learning probably isn't ideal for teenagers either. In a study published in 2012, Johannes Holz at the University of Freiberg, and colleagues, found that 16- and 17-year-old girls performed better on tests of factual memory if they'd learned the material at 3pm than at 9pm.
However, another study, published in Psychological Science in 2016, suggests that evening learning can be beneficial – especially if you follow it with a decent night's sleep, and a follow-up session the next morning.
French-speaking participants were split into two groups: one learned the French translations of 16 Swahili words in the morning, returning for a second booster session that evening; the others learned the translations in the evening with a booster session the following morning.
The group that learned the vocab in the evening, slept and then studied again the next morning out-performed the other group on all kinds of memory tests. The overnight group showed virtually no forgetting after one week (unlike the same-day learners, who'd forgotten, on average, 4-5 of the translations), and by the second session, they'd forgotten less than the same-day learners and were quicker to re-learn anything that they hadn't remembered.
The researchers suspect that sleep soon after learning allowed for a greater consolidation of these memories than for the other group. The results suggest that scheduling two study periods, one for close to bed-time, the other soon for after waking, is an effective way to learn.
Take long breaks
The idea of taking as long a break as possible between learning some vocab and revisiting it sounds counter-intuitive. However, it's worth considering a phenomenon called the "spacing effect" when planning your study schedule.
According to research published in 2007 by Doug Rohrer and Hal Pashler, you should aim to time the intervals between learning something and revising it based on when you'll really need to recall it (for an exam, say, or a holiday) following a 10 per cent rule – i.e. you should space your revision periods at intervals of roughly 10 per cent of the total time you'd really like to retain those memories. If you've got a test coming up in a month, say, then you should revise what you learn today in about two or three days' time. But if you want to remember something over the longer term, so that your performance peaks in a year's time, then it's sensible to revisit that information once a month. Why this rule should work isn't clear, but it's possible that having long gaps between learning, revision and retrieval tells your brain that this is knowledge you'll be coming back to, so it's worth holding for the long term.
The 10 per cent rule is only a rough guide, though. More recent research suggests the spacing effect works best when it is adapted to each individual's progress. In a study published in 2014 in Psychological Science, Pashler and his team devised individual spacing plans for middle school pupils learning Spanish, based on the material's difficulty level and how well the students did on early tests. They found that these individualised plans boosted test performance at the end of a semester by 16.5 per cent, and led to 10 per cent better scores than the "one-size-fits-all" 10 per cent spaced study plan.
Other research has backed up this counter-intuitive idea that, rather than being detrimental, taking a long break from a language that you're learning might actually be beneficial. A study published in 2012 involved 19 people becoming proficient at speaking and comprehending an artificial language and then taking a three- to six-month break. Michael Ullman at Georgetown University and his team found that the group did just as well in grammar tests after this break as they had done right after first learning the language. In fact, after the break, their brain activity while processing the language looked more like the kind of activity you see when native speakers are processing their first language. Ullman thinks taking a lengthy break from an already learned second language can help the representation of the language to shift from a form of "declarative memory" to "procedural" – akin to playing an instrument or riding a bike. This was a small study involving an artificial language so more research is definitely needed, but as the researchers noted, their findings have "potentially important consequences for second language acquisition".
Have a drink…
Alcohol is not exactly known for its brain-boosting properties. It impairs all types of cognitive functioning, including working memory and the ability to ignore distractions. So you'd think it would make it harder for someone to speak in a foreign language. However, a study published in 2017 by Fritz Renner and colleagues found that it doesn't – if anything, it can be beneficial.
German volunteers learning Dutch who'd drunk enough vodka to achieve a blood alcohol level of 0.04 per cent (approximately equivalent to just under a pint of beer for a 70kg male) were rated by independent Dutch speakers as speaking the language more proficiently during a short-test (they had to argue in Dutch for or against animal testing), compared with the other participants who'd only drunk water beforehand.
Why? Perhaps because some people feel anxious when talking in a foreign language, and this was ameliorated by the alcohol. However, as Renner cautions: "It is important to point out that participants in this study consumed a low dose of alcohol. Higher levels of alcohol consumption might not have [these] beneficial effects."
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Whether or not women think beards are sexy has to do with "moral disgust"
- A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
- Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
- Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.
Beards and perceptions of masculinity<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg0MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzkxMjM3N30.cH-GqNwP5GVqvstgJWAhBPn1B_lYpVEAI0I7iax7EQw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C1900%2C0%2C849&height=700" id="caae6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="cb0a355a4e8e1899789bc45f3f7aef56" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Photo Credit: Wikimedia<p>The study used 919 American (mostly white) women ages 18-70 who rated 30 pictures of men they were shown with various stages of facial hair growth. The photographs depicted men with faces that had been digitally altered to look more feminine or more masculine, with a beard and without a beard. The women rated the men according to perceived attractiveness for long-term and short-term relationships. The study found that the more facial hair the men had, the higher the men were rated on their attractiveness, particularly for their suitability for a long-term relationship.</p><p>Part of this might be attributed to facial masculinity — i.e. protruding brow ridge, wide cheekbones, thick jawline, and deeply set narrow eyes — which conveys information to a woman about a man's underlying health and formidability. Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength and social assertiveness. It can also indicate a man with a superior immune response. The researchers suggested that their findings favoring bearded men could be due to the fact that facial hair enhances the masculine facial features on a man's face, like creating the illusion of a thicker jaw line. This could communicate direct benefits to women like resources and protection that would enhance survival among mothers and their infants. In other words, while a beard doesn't mean superior genetics in and of itself, it might be a primitive, ornamental way of saying, "Hey girl, I'm a testosterone-fueled lean, mean, pathogen fighting machine." <br></p><p>It could also be that a beard becomes its own destiny. The researchers in this study cite prior research that found that by growing a beard, men felt more masculine and had higher levels of serum testosterone, which was linked to a higher level of social dominance. They also tended to subscribe to more old-school beliefs about gender roles in their relationships with women as compared to men with clean-shaven faces.<span></span><br></p>
What does disgust have to do with beard preference?<p>Obviously, not all women dig beards. The researchers were particularly interested in what traits make a women prefer bearded men over clean-shaven faces. They looked into several factors including a woman's disgust levels on various concepts, her desire to become pregnant, and her exposure to facial hair in her personal life. </p><p>According to the study, women who were not into facial hair were turned-off by potential parasites or other critters they imagined could be in the hair or skin. Women ranking high on this "ectoparasite disgust" scale might have viewed beards as a sign of poor grooming habits. However, women who ranked higher in levels of "pathogen" did find the bearded men to be desirable, possibly because they perceived beards as a signal of good health and immune function. An intriguing discovery in the study was links to morality. Women who displayed higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, were more likely to prefer hairy faces. The authors opined that this could reflect a link between beardedness, politically conservative outlooks, and traditional views regarding performances of masculinity in heterosexual relationships.</p>
Additional findings<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjU5OTg1My9vcmlnaW4uZ2lmIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDI1NjUyOX0.P9B8WbmJR0q4nfzYZKbuNSA-2SAigVWJgrQE-_Gxlds/img.gif?width=980" id="49143" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2ed3b1d6f20fc170bf2974646e565e8d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />Giphy<p>The correlations that existed between married and single women's rating on the attractiveness of beards were not particularly clear, although the researchers noted that single and married women who wanted children tended to find beards more attractive than the women who didn't want children. They also found that women with bearded husbands found beards to be more attractive, which might indicate that social exposure to beards influences how desirable they are perceived of as being. Or it could be that men with wives who like beards grow beards.</p><p>It's important to note that culture plays a huge role in how attractive women perceive certain male characteristics as being. This study looked at a small, culturally specific group of American women, so no big, universal claims should be made about masculinity, facial hair, and male desirability to women. However, research like this is important in highlighting how human grooming decisions are driven by much more than fashion trends. Sociobiological, economic, and ecological factors all play a part in the way we choose to present ourselves.</p>
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