The Difficulty Of Learning A Second Language Education Essay

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This topic can be very useful for adult students who are learning a second language. It shows from a scientific prospective, the explanation of why adult s can not keep a fluently conversation in the second language when they are learning it. The technologies presented give rich data that explains this phenomenon. In addition to this, it also gives another explanation from a pedagogical prospective differencing the way children learn from adults. Finally, this topic can make students and teachers reflect on the way how they are learning and teaching the second language.


Introduction of why to speak a second language is difficult in adulthood.

Importance of learning a second language

Why is so difficult to learn a second language later in life?

The brain

The methodology

Background of brain research technique using technologies

Language centers

Functions of Wernicke's area

Functions of Broca's area

Research techniques

Positron emission tomography (PET), 1995.


Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), 1997.

Findings by Dr. Joy Hirsch

Intracranial Electrophysiology (ICE), 2009.

Findings by Dr. Ned T. Sahin

Language learning vs. language acquisition by Julio Foppoli.

Literature Review

Controversy in positions of language centers in the brain.

Positron emission tomography (PET).

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Controversy in functions of language centers in the brain.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Intracranial Electrophysiology (ICE).

Controversy in methodology of teaching the second language.

Language Acquisition

Language Learning

Arguments of why to speak a second language is difficult when you learn it in adulthood.

Functions of the Broca's area

Receptive language

Expressive language

Methodology used to teach the second language.


Restatement of why to speak a language is difficult when you learn it in childhood.

Biological reasons

Pedagogical reasons


Why to Speak a Second Language Is Difficult When You Learn It in Adulthood

Nowadays, people are more interested in learning a second language. They can be children, teenagers or adults. But , at the time to look for a job, to study abroad, to do tourism, to make business or just to have access to new cultures, adult people realize the importance to learn a second or maybe a third language. This is the moment when they want to learn it as soon as possible like magic. As a result, this originates frustration and disappointment at the moment to learn and acquire a new language. Therefore, when adults try to learn a second language, they must be informed of the biological processes that their brains undergo. So, adults must ask themselves, why is so difficult to learn a second language later in life? Maybe the answer is in the brain. A part of our brain has to get accustomed to new patterns that did not exist in the past. It is like learning to ride a bike. You, as an amateur, fall down and fall down, until the moment that you can pedal and have the balance. Then, you do it, and you will never forget it. Thus, learning a second language is the same; however, the key is in the practice that you frequently do.

According to this research, there are two possible complex answers why to learn a second language is difficult in adulthood. First, results provided by technologies studying the bilingual brain. Secondly, the methodology and strategy used to teach the second language. These two answers can be connected to each other, but it gives a clear explanation to the question. In order to make evidences clear, there will be comparisons between early and late bilinguals. Also, we will see the difference between learning and acquiring a second language.

While it maybe true all the arguments presented, there are some other factors that we have to consider such as motivation, personality, critical period and style of learning among others. Bilingualism and second language acquisition are very broad topics that can be interpreted in different ways, but they all coincide in the same that children and adults learn differently.


In our brain, the part in charge of language is in the left hemisphere of the brain. This applies for those who are right-handed. Those who are left-handed this part can be in the right hemisphere or in both sides of the brain. No matters how, in this part of the brain there are the language centers. These are the Wernicke's area and the Broca's area. The Wernicke's area (WA) is in charge of the understanding or meaning of the language; in contrast, the Broca's area (BA) is in charge of the speech production. This notion is still taught in many text books according to ScienceDaily (2009). But nowadays, recent research says that it also manages word identity (lexicon and grammar), and phonology (identify pronunciation), ScienceDaily (2009) & Steele (2010). These two language centers differ in position in early and late bilinguals. Early bilinguals the first language (L1) and second language (L2) are in the same position in the Wernicke's and Broca's area. Nevertheless, in late bilinguals is different. The L1 and L2 are in the same position in the Wernicke's, but they are not in the Broca's area. The L1 and L2 are spatially separated in this language center, according to Dr. Joy Hirsch's research (1997).

There has been different research using different technologies to prove this. First, in 1995 a technique named non-invasive brain imaging using computer-aided tomography, also known as positron emission tomography (PET), suggested that L1and L2 are centered in the same part in the BA. But, the point here is that the sample used were participants of seven years old, which was the Hirsch's description of an early bilingual (1997). Later, in 1997 the head of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital's functional M.R.I. Laboratory, Dr. Joy Hirsch and her graduate student Karl Kim, used the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the cognitive tasks in the brain, Blakeslee (1997). They recruited as sample 12 healthy bilinguals. Six learnt the second language in infancy, and the other half around 11 and 19 years old. Hirsch (1997) discovered that "People who learned a second language as children used the same region in Broca's area for both languages. But those who learned a second language later in life made use of a distinct region in Broca's area for their second language--near the one activated for their native tongue." Finally, a new study carried out by Ned T. Sahin, PhD, post-doctoral fellow in the University of California, San Diego, Department of Radiology and Harvard University Department of Psychology, reported two more functions of the BA that are word identity (grammar), and pronunciation. This was thanks to the research technique named Intracranial Electrophysiology (ICE), which provides data of very high spatial and temporal resolution, Steele (2010). But, the sample used was different from the others. In this research, scientists used patients who were undergoing brain surgery, Steele (2010).

All in all, it is also important to highlight the difference between language acquisition and language learning. According to Julio Foppoli, a teacher of English and Spanish as a second language, he says that acquisition comes naturally and meaningfully; in contrast, language learning is imposed, not meaningful and not communicative. So according to him, these could be important factors to success or fail in speaking and understanding a second language.

Literature Review

Dr. Hirsch's research found evidence that children and adults do not use the same parts of the brain when learning a second language. People who learned a second language as children used the same region in Broca's area for both languages. But those who learned a second language later in life made use of a distinct region in Broca's area for their second language--near the one activated for their native tongue, Discovermagazine, (1997). But, the only function described of the Broca's area was the execution of speech (Blakeslee, 1997). In contrast, Steele (2010) reports that a newest research demonstrates that besides the execution for speech production, the Broca's area is involved in other types of linguistics processing such as lexical (helping to identify forms, such as plurals or past tenses), and phonological (helping to identify pronunciations). In addition to this, Sahim (2009) adds, "we showed that distinct linguistic processes are computed within small regions of Broca's area, separated in time and partially overlapping in space" Specifically, the researchers found patterns of neuronal activity indicating lexical, grammatical and articulatory computations at roughly 200, 320 and 450 milliseconds after the target word was presented, ScienceDaily, (2009). The authors coincide with the nature of Broca´s area as a mysterious brain function. The problem is with late or adult learners of second language. They have to build a new system for the second language, as Hirsch (1997) tries to explain it saying that "when language is being hard-wired during development, the brain may intertwine sounds and structures from all languages into the same area. But once that wiring is complete, the management of a new language, with new sounds and structures, must be taken over by a different part of the brain." For that reason, it needs to change the methodology for adult learners toward a communicative and meaningful classes rather than grammar oriented classes, as Julio Foppoli suggests. This is supported by Hirsch comparing the way how children acquire the second language with the way adults do. Because the parents and family members teach the infant to speak the second language in a very tactile, auditory and visual way, children easily acquire it. In contrast, adults only sit down in high schools in classes that revolve around grammar, patterns, repetitions, drillings and rote memorization without even a human interlocutor to interact with, they can not acquire it, Discovermagazine, (1997) & Julio Foppoli. So this is a good example that Julio Foppoli remarks in the difference of language acquisition and language learning. Language acquisition is meaningful and communicative; in contrast, the language learning is not communicative and not meaningful, Julio Foppoly adds.


Obviously, learning a second language is habituating our body and mind to new patterns. This is supported by Hirsch adding that "We can see the body building in the brain as a result of this." The answer to the interrogative of this paper, why is difficult to learn a second language in adulthood, it could be divided in two. First of all, in 1997 with Hirsch, we only noticed that the mainly function in the BA was the speech production. Somehow or other, this could explain why second language learners could not produce sounds exactly as a native speaker. However, the new research by Sahin (2009) found that aspects of word identity, grammar and pronunciation are all computed within the BA. Before, it was believed that WA was in charge of the receptive language, namely reading (word identity and grammar), and the understanding of that. In contrast, the BA was in charge of the expressive language that is speech production (vocal tract). Due to this, it means that the BA is responsible for both receptive and expressive language, ScienceDaily (2009). Evidence of this, it is when you see adults trying to speak the second language. Their speed fluency is very slow, because they take time to form sentences, to verify if it is grammatical correct, and finally, if it is well pronounced. More complex the idea is, more time they take. This means that the BA is working in processing all these linguistics processes at once. All this situations make sense, but they make things more difficult to adult second language learners. (Well, depending on the way those adult second language learners see it, because this could be the perfect excuse to explain their mispronunciations and grammatical mistakes). No matters how, if these linguistics aspects are separated from the first language, it means that they have to start from zero and build up new morphological, syntactical, grammatical and phonological patterns in their brains. The strategy to teach the second language must definitely be equal as children do. So this leads us to the second explanation of our question, which is the difference between learning and acquiring a second language. As Foppoli said, adults must acquire the second language naturally as children do. Parents do not have to explain children the grammar and phonology of the language. Contrarily, parents teach their children through a very auditory, visual and tactile way letting children make mistakes and learn from them. Children acquire the language communicatively through real meaningful conversations that make sense to talk about. On the other hand, adults do not acquire the second language; they learn the second language. Adults have knowledge of the second language and can demonstrate it in a grammar test or even, in a TOEFL. But, research has shown that knowing grammar rules of language do not necessarily result in good speaking or writing, adds Foppoli. So the methodology used by teachers and professors must be changed to a very meaningful and communicative strategy. Instead of teaching grammar-oriented lessons or follow the instructions of an audio CD in order to repeat words and phrases as parrots, students must be encourage to use the language in real context. This means to form classes that promote communication, speaking and the key word, practice. In order to acquire the language adult second language learners must practice the language and learn from their mistakes as children do. They have to dare to speak with native speakers and get involved to the different aspects of the new language such reading newspaper, novels; listening to radio, music; watching TV, movies; writing essays, letters or anything. As the saying says, "practice makes perfect."


In conclusion, learning a second language after childhood is definitely hard to acquire for biological and pedagogical reasons. Thanks to the technologies presented in the last fifteen years, it can confirm that the L1 and L2 will be always separated in the Broca's area for an adult learner. Children until the age of 9 or 10 will have the L1and L2 in the same place in the Wernicke's area and Broca's area. This fact makes things complicated for adults because this means, they have to build up new patterns for grammar, syntax, morphology and phonology for the new language. Besides, it is erroneous the way that adults are learning and acquiring the second language. Consequently, we see how adult learners fail and get frustrated in second language classes for the methodology taught.

In order to overcome these obstacles, it is really important that adults be aware of the functions of the brain and the right methodology to teach the second language. Meaningful and communicative lessons are the best tools to acquire it; in addition, attitude and motivation determine the success of these tools. But most important, it is the time and practice that adult must dedicate to learn, acquire and use the second language in real context.