Exhaustion (or distraction) as a language-learning tool.

Kids acquire languages better than adults do – everyone knows that. But Scientific American looks at researchers with Ghent University’s Eleonore Smalle who went just a little deeper to find that adults who overtire their brains learn languages the way little kids do:

For a recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, a group of Belgian adults simultaneously read and heard strings of four made-up words (such as “kieng nief siet hiem”). Specific consonants always appeared at the beginning or end of a word if the word contained a certain vowel. Participants next read the sequences aloud quickly. Their ability to avoid mistakes doing so indicated how well they absorbed the consonant-vowel patterns.

But before exposure to the new words, the participants had carried out a separate test: pressing keys to react to letters and numbers. Some got a much faster, more mentally draining version of this test. Those who tackled the difficult version claimed greater cognitive fatigue afterward—but performed better on the subsequent language task.

For a related paper, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, the team had English-speaking adults listen to streams of syllables secretly clustered into three-syllable “words.” Later, they played pairs of three-syllable clusters; one word in the pair came from the stream, and one was a new combination. The participants guessed which word was familiar, then rated their confidence.

In one participant group, some had first done the original mentally draining test. In another, some had received magnetic pulses to disrupt activity in a brain area that previous research has linked to executive control. In both groups, these interventions improved participants’ performance on the syllable task when they were unsure about their answers, indicating unconscious parsing of speech. (Confident answers suggested conscious recall instead.)

Maybe worth noting that Smalle recommends language learners relax with a glass of wine to get a similar effect.

You can read more of her findings in JEP here, and in PNAS here.