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Daunted by learning a new language ahead of a trip abroad? You're not alone.

Jess McHugh
August 09, 2016

Travelers who seek to discover the charms of foreign countries and cities beyond the pages of their guidebooks have long run into communication barriers.

Whether in a Parisian café where a server responds with nothing more than a confused look and a “Pardon?” when confronted with a non-French speaker, or while roaming the Himalayas trying to interact with sherpas in Nepal, visitors who want to explore without the help of a guide or translator must contend with the daunting obstacle of learning a new language.

Many intrepid explorers have lamented that foreign languages don’t come naturally to them, however. And a new study from the University of Washington revealed why they just might be right.

Psychologists studying second language acquisition found they could predict a person’s aptitude for language learning by studying their resting brain activity before completing any task related to learning a language. Resting brain activity occurs when someone is awake but not performing any specific cognitive task, and the brain is simply regulating bodily function and daydreaming—whether thinking about what to make for dinner, or where to spend an upcoming vacation.

Resting brain activity scans have prompted researchers to pursue further study, particularly as it concerns recent popular health trends such as mindfulness and other meditation practices that rely on focusing, or clearing the mind of scattered thoughts. Early scans of brain activity have even drawn connections between certain resting neurological patterns and intelligence levels.

The University of Washington study measured resting brain activity of 19 participants aged 18-31 before having them complete an eight-week French course developed by the U.S. military that aims to get soldiers to a high proficiency as quickly as possible. Researchers measured what skill level they had reached at the end of each session, and calculated participants’ rates of learning over the eight-week period. They found that the fastest learner acquired French at more than twice the rate of the slowest learner.

“The most surprising or important thing is that you can figure out in the brain at rest what somebody’s going to be able to do subsequently, or what somebody’s going to be able to learn,” Chantel Prat, one of the study’s authors, told Travel + Leisure.

Certain patterns of resting brain activity, particularly on the right side of the brain, were found to explain 60 percent of the differences in learning rates between participants. Patterns linked to linguistic processes closely predicted language learning rates.

Avid travelers who struggle to learn languages need not despair, however. While brain activity patterns helped predict 60 percent of the differences between slow and fast learners, 40 percent of the gap went unexplained. Research from other studies has pointed to many other factors that can contribute to success in learning a second, third, or even fourth language.

Personality type has been shown to have an effect on someone’s rate of language acquisition. Extroverts, for example, tend to excel particularly in oral language learning, as they are more likely to practice and improve their skills, while introverts might shy away from engaging natives in conversation or attending social gatherings. Extrinsic motivations, such as a scholarship at a foreign university or a new job abroad, also accelerate people’s success in language learning.

One of the top extrinsic factors? A potential partner. People learn second languages more quickly and with greater retention if they are attempting to communicate with a boyfriend or girlfriend, according to several studies.

“Motivation gets you very far,” Prat said.

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