Strategies

Critical period for learning language longer than thought

  • A large internet study has concluded that language-learning ability remains strong until about 17-18, however, to achieve native proficiency, you should start before age 10.

It’s long been speculated that there’s a critical period for learning a new language, but the specifics are a matter of debate. It is difficult to follow a sufficient number of language learners through their years of learning. But a new study has got over that difficulty by using the ability of Facebook to get vast numbers of people, who represent many stages of learning.

The study involved a 10-minute quiz on English grammar, after which users were asked to reveal their current age and the age at which they began learning English, as well as other information about their language background. Complete data was received from 669,498 people (both native and non-native English speakers).

Testing a number of computational models to see which was most consistent with the results, the researchers concluded that grammar-learning ability remains strong until age 17 or 18, at which point it drops. This is a much longer period than previously thought.

However, the study also found that it is nearly impossible for people to achieve proficiency similar to that of a native speaker unless they start learning a language by the age of 10. There wasn’t much difference between those who started learning the language at birth and those who began at 10, but if you start learning after 10, you don’t have a long enough time before reaching 18, to achieve the proficiency of native speakers.

It’s not clear, however, that these differences necessarily have to do with physiology. It still may be social or cultural, given that people’s lives customarily change at that age. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of how much time and effort you are able to devote.

The quiz was designed to be entertaining enough to go viral (in which it succeeded!), and included questions that used grammatical rules most likely to trip up a non-native speaker, as well as questions designed to reveal which dialect of English the test-taker speaks (acceptable grammar can vary by dialect).

Do note that this is only about learning to the standard of a native speaker! It emphatically does not mean that you can’t learn a language as an adult!

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-05/miot-csd042718.php

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-05/bc-bwf043018.php

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Learning music or another language leads to more efficient brains

  • Brain imaging shows that musicians and bilinguals require less effort to perform an auditory working memory task, compared to monolingual non-musicians.

Musicians and people who are bilingual have long been shown to have a better working memory, and a new study makes a start on identifying why this might be so.

The brain imaging study, involving 41 young adults (aged 19-35), who were either monolingual non-musicians, monolingual musicians, or bilingual non-musicians, found that musicians and bilinguals needed fewer brain resources when remembering sounds.

Participants were asked to identify whether the sound they heard was the same type as the previous one, and if the sound came from the same direction as the previous one. Sounds from musical instruments, the environment and humans were among those used in the study.

Musicians remembered the type of sound faster than individuals in the other groups, and bilinguals and musicians performed better than monolinguals on the location task. Although bilinguals remembered the sound at about the same level as monolingual non-musicians, their brains showed less activity when completing the task.

In both tasks and both levels of difficulty, musicians showed lower brain activity in the superior prefrontal frontal gyrus and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex bilaterally, which is thought to reflect better use of neural resources. Bilinguals showed increased activity in language-related areas (left DLPFC and left supramarginal gyrus), which may reflect a need to suppress interference associated with competing semantic activations from multiple languages.

The findings demonstrate that musical training and bilingualism benefit executive functioning and working memory via different activities and networks.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-05/bcfg-lmo051018.php

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Reading information aloud to yourself improves memory

  • A lab experiment finds we remember written information better when we read it aloud, and that this is more due to the self involvement than to the motor aspect of producing the words.

Confirming what many of us have learned through practical experience, a study comparing different strategies of reading or listening has found that you are more likely to remember something if you read it out loud to yourself.

In the study, 75 undergraduate students first spent around 15 minutes being recorded as they read aloud 160 common words. They were not told any reason for this activity. Two weeks later, they attended another short session, in which they were told that they would be given the same words they had read earlier, and they would then be tested on their memory of them. Half of the 160 words were given to them in four learning conditions (20 words in each):

  • reading silently
  • hearing someone else read
  • listening to a recording of oneself reading (taken from the first session)
  • reading aloud.

They were then given a self-paced recognition test involving all 160 words, and had to classify each one as “studied” or “new”.

The expected pattern of performance was consistent with that hypothesized: reading aloud was best, followed by hearing oneself, then hearing another, and finally reading silently. There was not a lot of difference between saying aloud and hearing oneself, however — words that were said aloud were only marginally better remembered than those in which one heard oneself say the word (hit rate of 77% vs 74%). Hearing someone else speak was significantly better than simply reading silently (69% vs 65%) (I know, it doesn’t seem much more different, but the first comparison didn’t reach statistical significance, and the second did, just). Much clearer was the comparison between those conditions with a self-referential component (reading aloud, hearing yourself) vs conditions with no such component — here the difference was very clearly significant. This was supported by the results of an unplanned comparison between the hear-self and hear-other conditions, which also produced a significant difference.

These results are consistent with previous research, though the differences are smaller than previous. It seems likely that this might be due to the necessity for participants to have previously experienced the words in the earlier session (obviously it would have been much better to have a substantially longer period between the sessions; I assume logistical issues were behind this choice).

In any case, the findings do support the idea that reading aloud helps memory through all three of its ‘extra’ components:

  • the motor aspect in producing the word
  • the auditory aspect in hearing the word
  • the self-referential aspect of being associated with one self.

Notably, this study suggests that it is the third of these (self-referential) that is the most important aspect, with the motor aspect being least important.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-12/uow-sfr113017.php

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Drawing best encoding strategy

  • Even quick and not particularly skilled sketches make simple information significantly more likely to be remembered, probably because drawing incorporates several factors that are known to improve memorability.

In a series of experiments involving college students, drawing pictures was found to be the best strategy for remembering lists of words.

The basic experiment involved students being given a list of simple, easily drawn words, for each of which they had 40 seconds to either draw the word, or write it out repeatedly. Following a filler task (classifying musical tones), they were given 60 seconds to then recall as many words as possible. Variations of the experiment had students draw the words repeatedly, list physical characteristics, create mental images, view pictures of the objects, or add visual details to the written letters (such as shading or other doodles).

In all variations, there was a positive drawing effect, with participants often recalling more than twice as many drawn than written words.

Importantly, the quality of the drawings didn’t seem to matter, nor did the time given, with even a very brief 4 seconds being enough. This challenges the usual explanation for drawing benefits: that it simply reflects the greater time spent with the material.

Participants were rated on their ability to form vivid mental images (measured using the VVIQ), and questioned about their drawing history. Neither of these factors had any reliable effect.

The experimental comparisons challenge various theories about why drawing is beneficial:

  • that it processes the information more deeply (when participants in the written word condition listed semantic characteristics of the word, thus processing it more deeply, the results were no better than simply writing out the word repeatedly, and drawing was still significantly better)
  • that it evokes mental imagery (when some students were told to mentally visualize the object, their recall was intermediate between the write and draw conditions)
  • that it simply reflects the fact that pictures are remembered better (when some students were shown a picture of the target word during the encoding time, their recall performance was not significantly better than that of the students writing the words)

The researchers suggest that it is a combination of factors that work together to produce a greater effect than the sum of each. These factors include mental imagery, elaboration, the motor action, and the creation of a picture. Drawing brings all these factors together to create a stronger and more integrated memory code.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-04/uow-ntr042116.php

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[4245] Wammes JD, Meade ME, Fernandes MA. The drawing effect: Evidence for reliable and robust memory benefits in free recall. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology [Internet]. 2016 ;69(9):1752 - 1776. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17470218.2015.1094494

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Tell a friend what you learned

  • A single instance of retrieval, right after learning, is enough to significantly improve your memory, and stop the usual steep forgetting curve for non-core information.

A study involving 60 undergraduate students confirms the value of even a single instance of retrieval practice in an everyday setting, and also confirms the value of cues for peripheral details, which are forgotten more readily.

In three experiments involving 20 undergraduate students, students were shown foreign or otherwise obscure movie clips that contained scenes of normal everyday events. The 24-second clips from 40 films were shown over a period of about half an hour. After a delay of either several minutes, three days, or seven days, the students were questioned on their memory of the general plot, as well as details such as sounds, colors, gestures, and background details that allow a person to re-experience an event in rich and vivid detail.

In the second experiment, students were given a brief visual cue, such as a simple glimpse of the title and a sliver of a screenshot, on testing. In the third experiment, students recalled the information soon after viewing, in addition to the later test.

Researcher found:

  • Peripheral details were, unsurprisingly, forgotten more quickly, and to a greater degree.
  • But those given cues did better at remembering peripheral details.
  • Cues didn’t significantly affect the memory of more substantial matters.
  • Those who retrieved their memories soon after viewing showed no forgetting of peripheral information.
  • Interestingly, these students still assumed they had forgotten a lot (confirming once again, that we're not great at judging our own memory)!

The finding confirms the value of even a single instance of retrieval practice, even without any delay. Note that memory was tested after a week. For longer recall, additional retrieval practice is likely to be needed — but it's probably fair to say that it's that first instance of retrieval that has the biggest effect. I discuss all this in much greater detail in my book on practice.

It's also worth thinking about this in conjunction with the earlier report that there's a special benefit in recounting the information to another person.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-01/bu-wta011717.php

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Repeating aloud to another person boosts recall

  • The simple act of repeating something to another person helps you remember it, more than if you just repeated it to yourself.

A Canadian study involving French-speaking university students has found that repeating aloud, especially to another person, improves memory for words.

In the first experiment, 20 students read a series of words while wearing headphones that emitted white noise, in order to mask their own voices and eliminate auditory feedback. Four actions were compared:

  • repeating silently in their head
  • repeating silently while moving their lips
  • repeating aloud while looking at the screen
  • repeating aloud while looking at someone.

They were tested on their memory of the words after a distraction task. The memory test only required them to recognize whether or not the words had occurred previously.

There was a significant effect on memory. The order of the conditions matches the differences in memory, with memory worst in the first condition, and best in the last.

In the second experiment, 19 students went through the same process, except that the stimuli were pseudo-words. In this case, there was no memory difference between the conditions.

The effect is thought to be due to the benefits of motor sensory feedback, but the memory benefit of directing your words at a person rather than a screen suggests that such feedback goes beyond the obvious. Visual attention appears to be an important memory enhancer (no great surprise when we put it that way!).

Most of us have long ago learned that explaining something to someone really helps our own understanding (or demonstrates that we don’t in fact understand it!). This finding supports another, related, experience that most of us have had: the simple act of telling someone something helps our memory.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-10/uom-rat100615.php

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Improve learning with co-occurring novelty

  • An animal study shows that following learning with a novel experience makes the learning stronger.
  • A human study shows that giving information positive associations improves your memory for future experiences with similar information.

We know that the neurotransmitter dopamine is involved in making strong memories. Now a mouse study helps us get more specific — and suggests how we can help ourselves learn.

The study, involving 120 mice, found that mice tasked with remembering where food had been hidden did better if they had been given a novel experience (exploring an unfamiliar floor surface) 30 minutes after being trained to remember the food location.

This memory improvement also occurred when the novel experience was replaced by the selective activation of dopamine-carrying neurons in the locus coeruleus that go to the hippocampus. The locus coeruleus is located in the brain stem and involved in several functions that affect emotion, anxiety levels, sleep patterns, and memory. The dopamine-carrying neurons in the locus coeruleus appear to be especially sensitive to environmental novelty.

In other words, if we’re given attention-grabbing experiences that trigger these LC neurons carrying dopamine to the hippocampus at around the time of learning, our memories will be stronger.

Now we already know that emotion helps memory, but what this new study tells us is that, as witness to the mice simply being given a new environment to explore, these dopamine-triggering experiences don’t have to be dramatic. It’s suggested that it could be as simple as playing a new video game during a quick break while studying for an exam, or playing tennis right after trying to memorize a big speech.

Remember that we’re designed to respond to novelty, to pay it more attention — and, it seems, that attention is extended to more mundane events that occur closely in time.

Emotionally positive situations boost memory for similar future events

In a similar vein, a human study has found that the benefits of reward extend forward in time.

In the study, volunteers were shown images from two categories (objects and animals), and were financially rewarded for one of these categories. As expected, they remembered images associated with a reward better. In a second session, however, they were shown new images of animals and objects without any reward. Participants still remembered the previously positively-associated category better.

Now, this doesn’t seem in any way surprising, but the interesting thing is that this benefit wasn’t seen immediately, but only after 24 hours — that is, after participants had slept and consolidated the learning.

Previous research has shown similar results when semantically related information has been paired with negative, that is, aversive stimuli.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-09/usmc-rim090716.php

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-06/ibri-eps061516.php

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Sleep helps you remember new names

  • A small study has found that a night's sleep helps you better remember new names.

Sleep, as I have said on many occasions, helps your brain consolidate new memories. I have reported before on a number of studies showing how sleep helps the learning of various types of new information. Most of those studies have looked at procedural learning (learning new skills), or verbal learning. A new study adds to these by looking at face-name associations.

The small study, involving 14 young adults, found that that they were significantly better at remembering faces and names if they were given an opportunity to have a full night's sleep hours after seeing those faces and names for the first time.

Participants were shown 20 photos of faces with corresponding names and asked to memorize them. After a twelve-hour period, they were then shown the photos again with either a correct or incorrect name. They were also asked to rate their confidence in their answer. Each participant completed the test twice — once with an interval of sleep in between and once with a period of regular, waking day activities in between.

After a night's sleep, participants correctly matched 12% more of the faces and names, and were much more confident of their answers.

Of course, this is not a huge difference, given the small number of face-name pairs, and the sample is small. I would have also liked to see further testing 12 hours later, so that we could compare the effects of a day followed by a night, versus a night followed by a day (this would have required more stimuli and more participants, of course).

So, not madly exciting, but taken in context of other research, it adds to the growing evidence that sleep helps you consolidate new learning of all kinds.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-11/bawh-wtr112315.php

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Mindfulness may increase susceptibility to false memories

  • Mindfulness meditation is associated in many studies with cognitive benefits, especially in attention.
  • In a new study, a brief guided meditation exercise increased students' false recognition of words as ones they had seen earlier.
  • It may be that the non-judgmental mindset encouraged by mindfulness meditation reduces people's ability to clearly remember the source of a memory, thus making them more susceptible to false memories.
  • Source memory also tends to be negatively affected by increasing age.

Mindfulness meditation is associated with various positive benefits, one of which is improved attention, but it might not be all good. A new study suggests that it may have negative cognitive consequences.

The study included three experiments, in the first two of which undergraduates carried out a 15-minute guided exercise: one group was instructed to focus attention on their breathing without judgment (mindfulness group); the other group was told to think about whatever came to mind (mind-wandering group; the control).

In the first experiment, 153 participants then studied a list of 15 words related to the concept of trash, but not including the word "trash". When then asked to recall as many of the words from the list as they could remember, 39% of the mindfulness group falsely recalled seeing the word "trash" on the list compared to only 20% of the mind-wandering group. There was no difference between the groups in the number of other words falsely recalled.

In the second experiment, 140 participants were compared to themselves, before and after the intervention. They all began by doing six of the same sort of word lists. They were then randomly assigned either the meditation exercise or the mind-wandering. This was then followed by a further six word lists.

Again, mindfulness participants were more likely to falsely recall the critical word than those who engaged in mind wandering. Those in the mind-wandering group showed no difference in performance on the word lists before and after, while those in the meditation group were significantly more likely to falsely remember the critical item. Again, there were no other differences in performance between the groups: they correctly recalled about the same number of words, and they falsely remembered about the same number of other words.

In the third experiment, 215 undergraduates had to determine whether a word had been presented earlier, where the words shown were all part of a strongly associated pair (e.g., foot-shoe). After seeing the 100 words (for 1.5 seconds each), they were then tested. Each word had an equal chance of being one of the words in the presented list, or its associated pair. All students were then given the 15-minute meditation exercise, before going through the process again.

Again, the rate of words correctly identified as seen before was about the same before and after the meditation exercise, but the rate of words falsely identified increased significantly after the exercise.

In all, then, it seems that mindfulness meditation increased participants' susceptibility to false memories, reducing their ability to differentiate items they actually encountered from items they only imagined (because of their strong association to the items encountered).

The researchers speculate that the mechanism that seems to underlie the benefits of mindfulness — judgment-free thoughts and feelings — might also affect people's ability to determine the origin of a given memory (source memory), because they have become less able to distinguish between externally occurring events and internally generated events.

Source memory is one of those memory domains that tend to be affected by aging. However, the benefits of meditation for improving attention — another area particularly affected by age — outweigh this downside. So I'm certainly not suggesting anyone should be put off by this finding!

An interesting question that remains to be answered is whether this negative effect on source memory is short-lived, or whether experienced meditators tend to have poorer source memory.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-09/afps-mmm090915.php

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Movements and images improve new vocabulary learning

  • Foreign words are learned better when gestures or pictures are used.
  • Imitating symbolic gestures is more beneficial than viewing illustrative pictures.
  • These benefits correlate with activity in specific brain regions.
  • The benefits are only found in translation tasks, not in free recall.

A small study using an artificial language adds to evidence that new vocabulary is learned more easily when the learner uses gestures.

“Vimmish”, the artificial language used in the study, follows similar phonetic rules to Italian. The German-speaking participants were given abstract and concrete nouns to learn over the course of a week. In the first experiment, the 21 subjects heard the words and their translations under one of three conditions:

  • with a video showing a symbolic gesture of the word's meaning, which they imitated
  • with a picture illustrating the word's meaning, which they traced in the air
  • with no gestures or pictures.

On the 8th day, the participants were tested while their brain activity was monitored. The test involved hearing the foreign word, then selecting the correct translation from four written options.

The researchers were interested in learning whether they could predict the learning condition from the brain activity patterns displayed when the participants were tested. They found that the gesture condition and control could be distinguished in two brain regions: a visual area that processes biological motion (part of the right superior temporal sulcus), and the left premotor cortex. Activity in these regions was also significantly correlated with performance. The picture condition and control could be distinguished in a visual area that processes objects (the right anterior lateral occipital cortex). There was a trend for this activity to correlate with performance, but it didn't reach significance.

Paper-and-pencil translation tests two and six months after learning showed that learning with gestures was significantly better than the other conditions. But note that there was no advantage for any condition in a free recall task.

A second experiment compared gesture and pictures in the more common picture scenario — participants only viewed the video or picture; there was no imitation. Unsurprisingly, there was no motor cortex involvement in this scenario: gesture and control conditions were distinguished only by activity in the biological motion part of the right superior temporal sulcus. The correlation of activity in the right anterior LOC with performance in the picture condition this time reached significance. But most importantly, this time the picture condition led to better translation accuracy than the other two conditions.

However, the most significant result is this: when both experiments were evaluated together, the gesture benefit in experiment 1 (when the participant copied the gesture) was greater than the picture benefit in the second experiment.

The findings are in keeping with other evidence that foreign words are learned more easily when multiple senses are involved.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-02/m-lwa020415.php

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