S09-02 10

The effects of learning languages in different stages of adulthood


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Judith Cobler AndreuBowdoin College


My work deals with the intricate relationship between learning foreign languages and its effects on the adult brain. It starts by examining various aspects of language learning, brain development, bilingualism, and methods for assessing brain changes. The aim is to understand how acquiring new languages influences the adult brain’s structure and function, comparing acquisition in childhood with young to late adulthood learning.

Through online interviews with two cognitive scientists, I validated the various hypotheses I had regarding language learning in adulthood. Initially, it was expected that some difficulties partake in this process due to the consequences of aging. Nonetheless, the ability to learn them at any stage of adulthood was anticipated. The interview findings indicated that adults can achieve native-like proficiency in any language if they have been able to benefit from the advantages of brain training and challenges before. On top of that, it was also found that learning languages is a complex process that is greatly influenced by many things and age is only one of them.

Taking into account the previous assessment as well as the interviews, my study highlights the importance of language learning for healthy aging, and cognitive enhancement. It provides a theoretical framework for understanding the areas of the brain that are involved in the process of learning, as well as integrating insights from the social and cultural impact by which people of different ages could be affected. Furthermore, it discusses how the adult brain undergoes changes, such as increased gray matter density and white matter integrity, when learning foreign languages. Moreover, it also presents various ways that scientists can use to measure brain activity and changes and how these have relevance when it comes to understanding the processes that happen with the acquisition of a language.

Overall, the research argues for a shift in perceptions about language learning in adulthood, advocating for the recognition of individuals’ ability to achieve fluency at any stage of life. By doing so, it suggests, individuals can tap into the cognitive benefits of language acquisition and enrich their lives through intercultural experiences and enhanced cognition. Not only does it show the importance of brain training and the consequences of not doing it, but also it raises awareness for the people who have always been told that they are “too old to learn a new language”.

Preguntas y comentarios al autor/es

    • profile avatar

      María Lorena Colombo López

      Comentó el 30/03/2024 a las 21:18:47

      Buenas tardes, Judith:
      Muchas gracias por su presentación, me ha resultado muy interesante, especialmente porque actualmente estoy escribiendo una tesis sobre el aprendizaje de inglés en aprendientes adultos y he trabajado y estudiado las distintas teorías sobre el aprendizaje y enseñanza de lenguas en personas adultas. Considero que la literatura ha mostrado claramente que no existe tal período crítico para el aprendizaje y que hemos de investigar desde un punto interdisciplinar que haga hincapié en las diferentes variables que afectan al proceso de aprendizaje, entre ellas, la motivación, las estrategias de aprendizaje, la metodología (por ejemplo, en mi tesis investigo el papel de la enseñanza explícita) y, por supuesto, las evidencias que nos aportan las herramientas de neuroimagen.
      Me queda la curiosidad de si su investigación explora o va a explorar el aprendizaje de lenguas en personas adultas, comparándolas con personas más jóvenes, sería muy interesante.
      Muchas gracias y un saludo,

    • profile avatar

      Andreea Rosca

      Comentó el 15/03/2024 a las 16:20:35

      Dear Judith,

      Thank you for your insightful talk. I have a question regarding the neuroimaging techniques you mentioned: MRI, fMRI, EEG and MEG. Are there any particular studies that used these techniques in relation to language learning? Could you recommend some?
      Thank you once again.
      Best wishes,
      Andreea Rosca

    • profile avatar

      Fernando Casanova Martínez

      Comentó el 14/03/2024 a las 18:07:02

      Hola Judith:
      Muchas gracias por tu presentación. Es realmente interesante. Me gustaría preguntarte sobre la localización de las áreas del cerebro para el aprendizaje de un idioma. Como dices, no es aplicable porque se entiende que funcionan todas interconectadas. Mi pregunta es: ¿esa interconexión significa que se activan varias zonas a la vez o se produce una activación secuencial de distintas áreas? Un saludo.

      • profile avatar

        Judith Cobler Andreu

        Comentó el 15/03/2024 a las 16:08:59

        Hola Fernando,

        Muchas gracias por tu comentario y pregunta. Hasta donde yo sé las áreas se deberían activar simultáneamente, aunque puede ser que ya estén activas antes. La cuestión es que si asumimos que se vam activando de manera secuencial, asumimos que trabajan individualmente. Es decir, imagínate una cadena de trabajo, cada paso se da uno después del otro, y cada uno hace una cosa distinta. En cambio, imagínate un lugar de trabajo donde todo el mundo estuviera haciendo cosas simultáneamente (y muchas veces hagan varias cosas a la vez). Esto es lo que estaría pasando en el cerebro.

        Espero que esto te ayude, pero si tienes dudas avísame.


    • profile avatar

      Rosita Torres Ortiz

      Comentó el 14/03/2024 a las 17:03:49

      Hello Judith,
      Great presentation. I think that everybody can learn something new every day. Do you think, according to your study, that adult people should learn languages with other adult students in class, or it is irrelevant in the teaching-learning process?
      Thanks a lot,

      • profile avatar

        Judith Cobler Andreu

        Comentó el 15/03/2024 a las 16:04:52

        Hi Rosita,

        Thank you so much for your comment. I would say that it probably is useful for adults to learn along other adults. I guess it would have something to do not only with the fact that they would be more prone to similar learning experiences, but also with being comfortable and having different topics in the setting.

        I hope this helps,

    • profile avatar

      Iratxe Serna Bermejo

      Comentó el 14/03/2024 a las 15:45:36

      Hello Judith,
      Congratulations on your presentation. Do you consider that the most significant differences between an adult learning languages ​​and a child are related to their abilities or other factors such as experience, feelings, etc.?
      Thank you,
      Iratxe Serna Bermejo.

      • profile avatar

        Judith Cobler Andreu

        Comentó el 14/03/2024 a las 16:29:04

        Dear Iratxe,

        Firstly, thank you for asking. Answering your question, yes. The way we all learn depends on all the variabilities that influence learning: age, social status, experience, skills, brain function, etc. This is the essential key to understanding that children learn faster because they are, essentially, getting input all the time and can process it in a way that senior adults cannot due to deterioration. Nonetheless, this does not mean that an adult cannot learn. It simply means that an adult will learn at a different rate, or using different techniques depending on each of their situations.

        I hope this answers your question. Otherwise, feel free to ask for further clarification.


    • profile avatar

      Aránzazu Dopico Puerto

      Comentó el 14/03/2024 a las 15:40:35

      Hello Judith, very interesting presentation, congratulations. Can you discuss any potential implications of your findings for language education programs or strategies tailored to different age groups?
      Thank you very much.

      • profile avatar

        Judith Cobler Andreu

        Comentó el 14/03/2024 a las 16:23:43

        Dear Aránzazu,

        Thank you for your question. As far as I know, I believe it is always important to be patient and aware. What I mean by this is that, if one has a senior student the priority should be to understand their situation in order to proceed in one way or another. It is hard for me to answer this question since I have not a lot of learnt knowledge on programs or strategies but I hope this helps. Otherwise, feel free to ask for further clarification.

        Thank you,

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