How long does it take for a word from a foreign language to permanently etch itself into your brain? About 15 minutes, according to researchers at Cambridge University. That’s all the time your brain needs to build a network of brain cells that will help you recall the word in question. The only catch is that you need to hear it repeated at least 160 times in that 15-minute window.
To perform the experiment, the scientists hooked people up to a monitor to measure their brain activity. They were presented first with a word they were familiar with. To simulate the experience of hearing a foreign word for the first time, they then listened to a word that was made up. Then, they listened to it again, and again, and again…Wow, that must have been annoying!
Fortunately, the volunteers were patient, and the data that was gleaned from the monitors attached to their skulls proved to be quite informative. Researchers watched the volunteers’ brain waves as they listened to first the familiar word and then to the the unfamiliar one, and found that the brain’s reaction to the two words was almost identical after hearing the unfamiliar one repeated 160 times in a 15 minute period.
Dr Yury Shtyrov, the doctor who led the study, told the Guardian that the results of the study imply:
“that practising language is important. Every little [bit] helps. Just perception – listening – is helpful. Our volunteers didn’t repeat the words.”
Of course, there’s a lot more to learning a foreign language than just vocabulary. Grammar can be even more of a challenge, especially if you’re learning a language with a completely different syntax from your mother tongue.
As Dr. Shytrov explained to the Guardian, the research is actually more encouraging for people who have lost language capabilities due to brain damage. He explains:
“This research suggests that faster rehabilitation may be possible if treatments for people with brain damage, such as stroke patients, target the brain’s ability to rapidly create these memory traces.”