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Kinsey Bice, a postdoctoral fellow in the UW Department of Psychology and the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, shows it’s easier to learn new languages when exposed to a variety of languages, in this UW News article.

Study shows exposure to multiple languages may make it easier to learn one

Kim Eckart

Learning a new language is a multi-step, often multi-year process: Listen to new sounds, read new word structures, speak in different patterns or inflections.

But the chances of picking up that new language — even unintentionally — may be better if you’re exposed to a variety of languages, not just your native tongue.

A new study from the University of Washington finds that, based on brain activity, people who live in communities where multiple languages are spoken can identify words in yet another language better than those who live in a monolingual environment.

“This study shows that the brain is always working in the background. When you’re overhearing conversations in other languages, you pick up that information whether you know it or not,” said Kinsey Bice , a postdoctoral fellow in the UW Department of Psychology and the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences and lead author of the study , which is published in the September issue of the journal Brain and Language.

The finding itself was somewhat by happenstance, explained Bice. The research launched in a community where English was the predominant language, but a cross-country lab move — for unrelated reasons — resulted in an additional study sample, in a community with a diversity of languages.

Yet the task for participants remained the same: Identify basic words and vowel patterns in an unfamiliar language — in this case, Finnish. While some of the classroom test results were similar between the two groups, the brain activity of those in the diverse-language setting was measurably greater when it came to identifying words they hadn’t seen before.

Read the entire article here .