New research shows late bilinguals are sensitive to unique aspects of second language

March 17, 2017 by Mojgan Sherkat
Results of the new study suggest that adults are capable of learning and processing a new language. Credit: UC Riverside

Imagine coming across a sentence in English that reads like this: "Mary apple eats her delicious." For most native-English speakers, the sentence would likely strike you as odd because it doesn't seem to be structured in an order that immediately gets the message across.

It has always been thought that, when learn a second language, they face this problem because the grammar of other languages doesn't necessarily match their . But, a new study reveals that adults are capable of learning and processing a new language in a way that resembles native speaker language use.

"Learning a second language as an adult is a difficult task," said UCR affiliate psychology professor Elenora Rossi, who was on the research team. "For years, scientists have believed that only the brains of very young children were pliable enough to allow for successful learning of a second language, while that was thought to be impossible for adults."

In the past two decades, the advance of testing methodologies and revolutionary neuroimaging methods have allowed language processing to be studied in real-time in a non-invasive way, opening the doors to a better understanding of how our brains process linguistic information in two languages.

In the study, the team looked at how native English speakers, who learned Spanish as a second language as adults, understood sentences in Spanish that contained subtle aspects of Spanish grammar that do not exist in English. Participants in the study were already advanced in Spanish, but not native speakers. The goal was to test them on aspects of Spanish that are typically difficult to learn because they don't exist in the structure of English grammar. Errors were purposely introduced and participants were asked whether they could detect the errors.

"Counter to the long-standing assumption that learning a second language and becoming bilingual past early childhood is impossible, we found that English speakers who learned Spanish as adults were able to understand these special aspects of Spanish," said Judith Kroll, a UCR psychology professor who was also on the research team. "The results suggest that adults are capable of learning and processing a new language in a way that resembles native speaker language use."

The authors of the paper, published in Frontiers in Psychology, are part of a larger research effort between UCR and Penn State to study the bilingual mind and brain. The research is conducted in collaboration, and supported by a National Science Foundation Partnerships for International Research and Education grant. Future research by the team will target understanding how an intensive but short period of new may shape adult minds.

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

More information: Eleonora Rossi et al. Late Bilinguals Are Sensitive to Unique Aspects of Second Language Processing: Evidence from Clitic Pronouns Word-Order, Frontiers in Psychology (2017). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00342

Related Stories

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.

Bilingual brains activate different networks when reading opaque and transparent languages

October 26, 2016
Three Spanish researchers have discovered that bilinguals use different neural networks to read languages that are pronounced as they are written - such as the Basque language - from those in which this correspondence does ...

Brain imaging proves second language learners can process language to nativelike levels

July 22, 2014
With enough practice, some learners of a second language can process their new language as well as native speakers, research at the University of Kansas shows.

Our brain benefits from an overlap in grammar when learning a foreign language

June 29, 2016
Researchers from Nijmegen have for the first time captured images of the brain during the initial hours and days of learning a new language. They use an artificial language with real structures to show how new linguistic ...

Recommended for you

Researchers link epigenetic aging to bipolar disorder

December 12, 2017
Bipolar disorder may involve accelerated epigenetic aging, which could explain why persons with the disorder are more likely to have - and die from - age-related diseases, according to researchers from The University of Texas ...

Researchers find common psychological traits in group of Italians aged 90 to 101

December 12, 2017
In remote Italian villages nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and mountains lives a group of several hundred citizens over the age of 90. Researchers at the University of Rome La Sapienza and University of California San ...

Twitter can reveal our shared mood

December 11, 2017
In the largest study of its kind, researchers from the University of Bristol have analysed mood indicators in text from 800 million anonymous messages posted on Twitter. These tweets were found to reflect strong patterns ...

New therapy can help schizophrenia sufferers re-engage socially

December 11, 2017
A new therapy aimed at helping young people suffering from schizophrenia to reconnect and engage with the world around them has had promising results, according to a new University of Sussex-led study.

Infant brain responses predict reading speed in secondary school

December 11, 2017
A study conducted at the Department of Psychology at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland and Jyväskylä Centre for Interdisciplinary Brain Research (CIBR) has found that the brain responses of infants with an inherited ...

Certain books can increase infant learning during shared reading, study shows

December 11, 2017
Parents and pediatricians know that reading to infants is a good thing, but new research shows reading books that clearly name and label people and objects is even better.

4 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

tahayav
not rated yet Mar 17, 2017
Pure delusions. I challenge them to understand Redonditos de Ricota lyrics
betterexists
5 / 5 (1) Mar 17, 2017
Very Stupid Article; There are Millions from Abroad here that CAN Speak English FAR BETTER Than Many Native English Speakers here. Yes, Could have taken a decade OR more, I do accept !
koitsu
not rated yet Mar 18, 2017
"Counter to the long-standing assumption that learning a second language and becoming bilingual past early childhood is impossible"

...Wait, what? Who the hell would make an assumption like that??
Someone who hasn't had much exposure to bilinguals? Or maybe someone who flunked out of their second language classes. Jeez.
HarryAudus
not rated yet Mar 20, 2017
I thought it was only learning the accent that differentiated early learners from later learners. In other words, early learners can sound indistinguishable from native speakers, but late learners generally have a foreign accent. Did this study test the ability of the learners in that aspect?

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.