How Immersion Helps to Learn a Language

Learning a foreign language is never easy, but contrary to common wisdom, it is possible for adults to process a language the same way a native speaker does. And over time, the processing improves even when the skill goes unused, researchers are reporting.

For their study, in the journal PloSthe  One, the scientists used an artificial language of 13 words, completely different from English. “It’s totally impractical to follow someone to high proficiency because it takes years and years,” said the lead author, Michael Ullman, a neuroscientist at Georgetown University Medical Center.

The language dealt with pieces and moves in a computer game, and the researchers tested proficiency by asking test subjects to play the game.

The subjects were split into two groups. One group studied the language in a formal classroom setting, while the other was trained through immersion.

After five months, both groups retained the language even though they had not used it at all, and both displayed brain processing similar to that of a native speaker. But the immersion group displayed the full brain patterns of a native speaker, Dr. Ullman said.

He and his team used a technique called electroencephalography, or EEG, which measures brain processing along the scalp.

The research has several applications, Dr. Ullman said.

“This should help us understand how foreign-language learners can achieve nativelike processing with increased practice,” he said. “It makes sense that you’d want to have your brain process like a foreign speaker.”

And though it may take time, and more research, the work “also could or should help in rehabilitation of people with traumatic brain injury,” he added.

A version of this article appeared in print on April 3, 2012, on page D3 of the New York edition with the headline: How Immersion Helps To Learn a Language.

One comment on “How Immersion Helps to Learn a Language

  1. Jon Crocker says:

    Excellent article and I couldn’t agree more that immersion has a key role to play. The classroom can be useful for laying the foundations, feedback sessions and particularly for making mistakes in (as not everyone has the confidence/desire to go out into the world and learn through their errors). However, at the first opportunity, I think it is crucial to use the language in authentic situations.

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