For most adults, the prospect of learning a new language seems daunting. The ability of children to “pick up” a new language through immersion and experience tends to fade as we get older and our cognitive functions mature. Our brains become more sophisticated and discerning, and new information needs to fight its way through well-established habits of mind in order to sink in and become second nature.
Languages are complex systems of knowledge, and if you approach learning from that perspective, you may find it difficult and intimidating. However, at a certain level, the brain is like a muscle: it can develop new patterns and new strength through constant repetition. You can’t necessarily acquire new knowledge this way, in that knowledge requires the engagement of higher-level cognition, but you can definitely acquire new skills.
That’s why one tried and true method for acquiring language is now being validated by advances in neuroscience. The technique is called “Spaced Repetition System (SRS) Learning,” and it involves exposing yourself to new words and new sounds constantly and repeatedly.
If you learned a language or other memorized concept such as multiplication tables when you were younger, you probably used the simplest version of SRS Learning: flashcards. Just by looking at words, numbers and concepts written out on 3×5 cards frequently enough, you teach your brain to recognize symbols in the correct order by rote or reflex. Once you have acquired that basic skill, you can apply it to higher levels of knowledge-related activity like arithmetic and algebra in the case of multiplication tables, or grammar and syntax in the case of language learning.
Language has the additional component of sound, which means you can do SRS Learning using audio media, either by itself or in combination with visual cues like words or pictures of scenes that provide context.
Some successful polyglots say that they are able to acquire languages quickly through a combination of SRS Learning and other techniques that require you to apply your new skills immediately in more sophisticated interactions such as conversation or reading. Even when you do not understand much of what you are hearing or seeing on the page, your brain is forming neural pathways that recruit your new rote memory skills developed through SRS to higher-level concepts.
Mobile devices are revolutionizing language learning by making it easier and more convenient for anyone to practice SRS drills anywhere, anytime, even if you only have a few minutes to devote to an activity. Learners can practice recognition skills looking at words on the screen of a mobile phone (which is about the size of a flash card), listen to words and sentences through earphones, play a learning game, view a video clip or even engage in a real-time conversation with a native speaker.
Decision-makers looking to implement Business English in their organizations should look for this capability as an important part of any learning platform.