3 (Scientifically Proven) Ways to Learn a New Language

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In 2014, Penn State researchers found that adults who successfully tackled a new language strengthened their neural pathways, benefiting overall brain function and slowing deterioration. We scoured some recent research for tips for mastering a second tongue in your spare time.

1. Do it before—and during—sleep.

In a Swiss study, German speakers reviewed Dutch terms right before they went to bed. During their non-REM sleep, one group was played language tapes with the Dutch words from earlier. The other group was not. When woken up, the group that had heard the tapes performed significantly better on vocabulary tests.

2. Gesture wildly.

In a 2012 study, two scientists invented a fake language (“Vimmi”) for 20 people to learn. They
split the material into halves: Some words were taught with the help of gestures, and some without. The words they taught using gestures stuck with the students more—notably, even abstract words like theory, and adverbs. As the scientists put it, “Gestures can reinforce the sensorimotor representation of a word or a phrase, making it resistant to decay.” Or, as we put it, thumbs up.

3. Stop trying so hard.

Leave it to MIT to tell the world we should take it a little easier. In a 2014 study, two groups of adults were presented with vocabulary words from another language and told to study the terms. One group pressed a button when they recognized words they were learning. The other group didn’t get a button— they were just instructed to color on paper (as an idle activity). The group with the button did better on individual vocabulary terms, but not nearly as well as the coloring group when it came to picking up the grammar. In other words: Don’t let anything deter you from your language study (break).