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Learning and Forgetting Languages

January 2007 - A study by Benjamin Levy, psychologist at the University of Oregon and his colleague Dr Michael Anderson published in Psychological Science has found that people who forget words in their native tongue while tackling a new language may be demonstrating an adaptive strategy to facilitate the learning process. Researchers suggest that the phenomenon, known as first-language attrition, does not reflect lack of use, but active inhibition of familiar native language words that may act as distractions.

Participants who had completed one year or more of Spanish at college level, but whose first language was English were asked to repeatedly name objects in Spanish. The more they did so, the harder they found it to give the English equivalent. Researchers suggest that naming objects in another language has an inhibitory effect, making it more difficult to retrieve corresponding terms in the native tongue. Fluent bilingual participants were far less likely to demonstrate these effects.

Researchers suggest that suppression of knowledge to facilitate learning may seem counterintuitive. However, they argue that it is crucial in the early stages of learning a new language when students have to actively ignore familiar native language words to progress. This becomes less necessary as fluency increases.

Benjamin Levy commented:

"First-language attrition provides a striking example of how it can be adaptive to (at least temporarily) forget things one has learned."

International adoption sheds light on language learning

Research by Jesse Snedeker of Harvard University and colleagues published in Psychological Science has found that milestones of language development are not simply a function of cognitive development but a consequence of the learning process itself. The study found that older trans-nationally adopted children who rapidly lose their original language and become fluent in that of their adoptive family go through similar stages to those experienced in infants learning their first language.

Researchers explain that infants initially say one word at a time, mostly using nouns (especially names for things that can be presented visually) or social words. As they grow older sentences become longer and more complex, with the introduction of verbs and other forms of grammar.

In the current study, researchers monitored the acquisition of English as a second language in children adopted from China between the ages of two and six years during their first 12 months in the US. They found that they replicated the stages of language development in infants, initially learning many nouns but few verbs or grammatical words. Similarly, they expressed single words at first, then very short sentences. However, the adopted children progressed through these milestones more rapidly than infants, suggesting that many will eventually catch up with their peers.

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