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Study: For adults, immersion language learning best

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It’s a story woven throughout Latino family history in the United States: you might not have known English when you first arrived stateside, but once enrolled in school or employed at a new job, you quickly picked up phrases, words and even slang in your newly-adopted second language.  A revolutionary new series of brain studies from Georgetown University Medical Center suggests that immersion language learning – using a type of brain mechanisms employed by native speakers – is better than classroom instruction when it comes to adults learning a second language, proving what Latino immigrants have known and practiced for generations.

The study, released today by Georgetown University, is co-authored by quartet of professors from the Department of Hispanic and Italian Studies, as well as the university’s Brain and Language Lab. Researchers taught 21 native English speaking-adults 13 foreign language words and found that after a few days, measures of brain processing showed that the immersion training itself “lead to full native-like brain processing of grammar” and fluency, proving that immersion-like classroom instruction works best for adults learning a new language.

“Immersion works for everyone – we know this for a fact,” says Margarita Calderón, Ph.D., a  language studies professor emeritus and senior research scientist at Johns Hopkins University School of Education. “Adults can learn a second language if they choose, but for both children and adults, a solid base in your primary language is critical and makes learning a second language easier.”

So what’s the key to abuelita learning English?  There are three factors – immersion, need and attitude – that lend themselves to an adult’s ability to learn English or any second language, says Dr. Calderón.

“Immersion is crucial and need is a significant factor that lends itself to learning language. Say abuelita has a new daughter-in-law that only speaks English and wants to communicate – that need acts as an incentive to learn,” explains Dr. Calderón. “And attitude is everything. Whoever has the attitude of ‘yes, I can do this if I try,’ will succeed in learning English regardless of age.”

After all, says Dr. Calderón, adults should approach English language instruction like any other challenge. “You just have to go out there and learn.”

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