Trying too hard

Did anyone read a recent article in Time magazine entitled ‘Want to Learn a Language? Don’t Try So Hard’? (Abrams; 2014)

It outlined a study undertaken at MIT University which basically found that whereas young people up until the age of puberty use procedural memory to learn a language, adults will use a different type of memory which, although it is not stated in the article, appears to be declarative memory. Whereas procedural memory involves the unconscious memory of skills and how to do things, like riding a bike, declarative memory is the conscious memorization of facts and events.

Apparently, in terms of language learning, the distinction is important. By using declarative memory, it seems that adults may be prone to over-analyzing language input.

Although I would, of course, have to undertake some rigorous research to verify this, upon observing my own students, both younger learners and adults, these findings seem to bear some grain of truth. For example, the child who seems to just implicitly ‘pick up’ the language through repetition and practice, and the adult who sits agonizing over how to explicitly form the present perfect. As the article says, these adult learners just seem to be trying too hard.

So, I suppose that the upshot of these findings, if true, is that teachers should be seeking to find ways of fostering the use of procedural memorization in younger learners, and trying to get adult learners to switch off their use of declarative memory and tap into their latent procedural faculties.

How to do this is the big question, and I certainly do not have the answers.  The article suggests maybe using specialized drugs or giving the adults a task to do while they are learning in order to distract the more declarative faculties. Obviously, administering drugs to your students is probably not an option, and getting your adult learners to do a task whilst learning the language might not be an option in terms of time and preparation. Should we then teach the adults in the same way as we teach the younger students? This might be an option if we could guarantee that the learners would make the switch to using procedural memory. However, we cannot guarantee this. We need to find ways of promoting the shift from declarative to procedural faculties.

Or maybe it is more simple than this? If the learners are indeed trying too hard, maybe we should be trying to get them to try less hard.

As I said, I don’t have the answers. However, it would be interesting to hear what you think.


Abrams. A (July 22, 2014). ‘Want to Learn a Language? Don’t Try So Hard’. Time Magazine. Retrieved from:

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Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

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