Foreign language experience can boost our learning abilities

Foreign language experience
Average age of acquisition and proficiency of each reported non-native language.

Mastering multiple languages becomes more important in the modern world. Furthermore, multilingualism may affect our learning abilities.

In a recent study, researchers find that the brain’s capacity to learn new words is influenced by foreign language experience. The finding is published in Scientific Reports.

Researchers from University of Helsinki in Finland, Aarhus University in Denmark, and National Research University in Russia conducted the study.

They tested how the brain’s capacity to rapidly form new representations for spoken words is affected by prior individual experience in non-native language acquisition.

Previous studies have shown that formation of new word memory traces is reflected in the brain responses and can increase during a short exposure to new words.

In the study, researchers recorded changes in electrophysiological responses to native and non-native new words during a learning experiment. In the experiment, new word stimuli were repetitively presented to healthy adults in either ignore or attend conditions.

The result showed that larger number of previously acquired languages and earlier average age of acquisition (AoA) could predict greater response increase to new non-native words.

This suggests that early and extensive foreign language experience is associated with greater brain flexibility for learning new words with unfamiliar phonology.

On the other hand, later average age of acquisition was associated with a stronger response increase for native new words, indicating better tuning of neural linguistic circuits to native phonology.

Based on the finding, researchers suggest that individual language experience has a strong effect on the brain basis of word learning. In addition, the experience can interact with the phonological familiarity of the novel words.

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Citation: Kimppa L, et al. (2016). Individual language experience modulates rapid formation of cortical memory circuits for novel words. Scientific Reports, 6: 30227. DOI: 10.1038/srep30227.
Figure legend: This image is credited to Kimppa L et al.