Foreign language
Ability to pick up a foreign language linked to pattern identification (Reuters)

The reason why some people find it easier to pick up a second language than others is related to the ability to learn patterns, researchers have said.

A study has shown people who find it relatively easy to learn to read and write in another language are also more able to identify statistical regularities.

This suggests learning another language uses pattern-learning capacities rather than linguistic ones, as previous research has suggested.

Published in the journal Psychological Science, a team from Hebrew University looked at how well American students were able to master a new language while on an overseas programme.

They were tested on how well they could pick up the structure of words and sounds in Hebrew twice - once in the first term and again in the second.

Research leader Ram Frost also had the students complete a visual task that measured their ability to pick up on statistical patterns - they were shown a stream of 24 complex shapes.

Strong association between patterns and language

The shapes had been organised into three sets of eight. The order of the sets was random but the shapes within each group of eight always appeared in the same sequence. Students were tested to see if they had picked up on a sequence within the task.

Findings showed that students who were able to identify patterns were more likely to have scored better on the language tests. They also found that those who did best on the visual test tended to have picked up the most Hebrew.

Frost said: "These new results suggest that learning a second language is determined to a large extent by an individual ability that is not at all linguistic.

"It's surprising that a short 15-minute test involving the perception of visual shapes could predict to such a large extent which of the students who came to study Hebrew would finish the year with a better grasp of the language."

The implications of the study, researchers say, are wide: "This finding points to the possibility that a unified and universal principle of statistical learning can quantitatively explain a wide range of cognitive processes across domains, whether they are linguistic or nonlinguistic," they said.