Recent study sheds new light on second language learning in adulthood

July 11, 2014, Aalto University
Recent study sheds new light on second language learning in adulthood

A recent study shows that assimilation of L2 vowels to L1 phonemes governs language learning in adulthood; researchers urge development of novel methods of second language teaching.

The behavioral and neural evidence of the study was found by researchers at Aalto University in Finland and at the University of Salento in Italy.The study was the first one to identify the neural mechanisms underlying the learning of L2 sounds (second language) in adulthood. Overall, this and earlier studies support the hypothesis that students in a foreign language classroom should particularly benefit from learning environments where they receive a focused amount of high-quality input from L2 native teachers, use pervasively the L2 to achieve functional and communicative goals, and receive intensive training (including the use of multi-medial systems) in the perception and production of L2 sounds in order to reactivate neuroplasticity of .

Learning in adulthood the sounds of a second language L2 means assimilating them to the phonemes of the native language L1.

In the study, two samples of Italian students, attending first year and fifth year classes of an English Language curriculum were invited to the behavioral and electroencephalography (EEG) lab. Dr. Brattico, senior author of the study from Aalto University, explains: "The discrimination skills were measured by crossing two methodologies: on one hand, perception tests in which the students listened to couples of English sounds that I synthesized and had to judge how similar or different they were, and on the other hand, EEG recordings with 64 electrode cap, while the students were presented with the same pairs of sounds and watched a silenced movie."

The EEG recordings were used to extract the auditory event-related potential, namely the succession of neural events necessary to the processing and representation of sound, originating from the auditory cortex.

"When we hear linguistic sounds that are part of our native tongue, in a few milliseconds the brain is able to decipher the acoustic signal, extract the peculiar characteristics of each sound and produce a mental representation of it: thus we are able to discern one sound from another and assemble first the syllables, then the words and so on", adds the first author, Professor Grimaldi, University of Salento.

"We compared the neural responses of the auditory cortex of the two groups of university students with one another and with a control group with a low level of education (third year of junior secondary school)", explains Grimaldi. "We started with this hypothesis: if during the academic studies the students had developed new perceptual abilities we would have found different neural responses for the three groups". The results did not confirm the hypothesis, but instead showed that neutrally, the L2 sounds were assimilated to L1 phonemes in all the groups.

Grimaldi adds: "Let us consider, for example, what happens when we watch a movie or listen to a song in a that we do not know: we are able to perceive acoustic differences, but we cannot `extract´ the words from the acoustic stream and accede to their meaning. This is what happened for our groups of students". Previous behavioral studies that observed L2 learners who had different native languages in an educational context (German, Finnish, Japanese, Turkish and other English learning students) never produced results favorable for the teachers. "This study specifies confirms and extends such results, proving by means of neurophysiological data that the quantity and quality of the stimuli received by university students are not enough to form long-term traces of L2 sounds in the auditory cortex", confirms Brattico.

Explore further: Learning how to listen with neurofeedback

More information: "Assimilation of L2 vowels to L1 phonemes governs L2 learning in adulthood: a behavioral and ERP study," Mirko Grimaldi et al. . Front. Hum. Neurosci., 13 May 2014. DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00279

Related Stories

Learning how to listen with neurofeedback

March 6, 2014
When listening to music or learning a new language, auditory perceptual learning occurs: a process in which your recognition of specific sounds improves, making you more efficient in processing and interpreting them. Neuroscientist ...

Pictorial mnemonics and sound contrasting yield more effective English teaching

January 6, 2014
Improving English language learning has been a stated priority of the government for two decades. However, Japanese children continue to perform poorly relative to other countries in assessments of English language skills. ...

The importance of keeping a beat: Researchers link ability to keep a beat to reading, language skills

September 17, 2013
The findings of a Northwestern University study of more than 100 high school students lend proof to the surprising link between music, rhythmic abilities and language skills.

Native-like brain processing of second language possible in university students

October 21, 2013
Along with helping students gain a global perspective, study abroad experiences may give college students a particular kind of advantage in learning another language.

Study shows bilingual children have a two-tracked mind

July 11, 2013
Adults learning a foreign language often need flash cards, tapes, and practice, practice, practice. Children, on the other hand, seem to pick up their native language out of thin air. The learning process is even more remarkable ...

Recommended for you

New neuron-like cells allow investigation into synthesis of vital cellular components

January 22, 2018
Neuron-like cells created from a readily available cell line have allowed researchers to investigate how the human brain makes a metabolic building block essential for the survival of all living organisms. A team led by researchers ...

Finding unravels nature of cognitive inflexibility in fragile X syndrome

January 22, 2018
Mice with the genetic defect that causes fragile X syndrome (FXS) learn and remember normally, but show an inability to learn new information that contradicts what they initially learned, shows a new study by a team of neuroscientists. ...

Epilepsy linked to brain volume and thickness differences

January 22, 2018
Epilepsy is associated with thickness and volume differences in the grey matter of several brain regions, according to new research led by UCL and the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Research reveals atomic-level changes in ALS-linked protein

January 18, 2018
For the first time, researchers have described atom-by-atom changes in a family of proteins linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a group of brain disorders known as frontotemporal dementia and degenerative diseases ...

Fragile X finding shows normal neurons that interact poorly

January 18, 2018
Neurons in mice afflicted with the genetic defect that causes Fragile X syndrome (FXS) appear similar to those in healthy mice, but these neurons fail to interact normally, resulting in the long-known cognitive impairments, ...

How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

January 17, 2018
Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4 / 5 (1) Jul 11, 2014
Is there any benefit to learning new *computer* languages ??

Having recently added a nimble version of Python to my eclectic collection, I'm reminded I was the despair of my school's language department. French ? Spanish ? Latin ? Technical German at Uni ??

Worse, I did once try a computerised Lingua-whatsit course. 'Listen, Repeat, Understand', they claim. In your dreams !! For week after week after week, until I despaired, that humiliating first chapter remained, 'Listen, Repeat, Got it Wrong'...
not rated yet Jul 12, 2014
Grimaldi adds: "Let us consider, for example, what happens when we watch a movie or listen to a song ...

Most fortunate that music is mentioned.

Of course a basic unit of music is sound.
You can find music composers born deaf.

Any extension to any vocabulary is beneficial, whether the 'sound' is sourced externally or imagined (provided) from the mind. You don't 'hear the 'sounds' of what you read here. Or do you?


The author comments ring true. The entire program of later language acquisition fails to fullfill L2 acquisition.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.