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Second Language Learners

Estimates are that there were approximately 4.6 million English Language Learners in U.S. Schools in 2018, closing in on 10% of the population. The number of English Language Learners around the world is estimated at over 1 billion. 60% of the world’s population speaks two or more languages. So, the impetus for second language learning is strong.

Acquiring a second (or other) language is frequently a different process than learning a first language and may be helped or hindered in sometimes underappreciated ways by an individual’s underlying cognitive skills. This webinar examines some of the challenges of learning a second language and the role of cognitive processing and executive functions in second language acquisition. We also share research on the impact of cognitive skills training for English Language Learners in several U.S. and ex-U.S. schools.

Learning a First Language

We start by exploring how infants learn language, beginning with recognition of prosody, the music of speech. There are common patterns across many languages and cultures in how we speak to babies.  There is research that shows a strong preference for the mother’s voice at birth, since hearing has been going on in utero. Research also shows that prosody is consistent across several cultures for different types of messages.

By 24 months, having babies listen to messages delivered with the wrong prosody get them upset and confused.  It is clear that they are understanding both aspects of speech at that point.  The strong role of the music of language suggests we might be underutilizing the power of prosody in second or other language instruction for older students and adults.  Even earlier, by about 6 months, babies recognize the phonemes of the language(s) spoken around them and start to solidify their repertoire of sounds, limiting the process of learning sounds to those.  It is not surprising, then that we are far better off learning a language early if we want to speak without an accent.

While children learn their first language seemingly effortlessly, older children and adults trying to learn a new language know how difficult it can be.  But not all aspects of language acquisition are equally difficult.  Pronunciation is the most difficult to acquire after childhood, and there is some advantage for early learning for grammar – and that advantage depends significantly on characteristics of the language in question.  There is much less advantage for early learning when it comes to vocabulary.

Cognitive Skills and Second Language Acquisition

Cognitive skills play an important role in second (or other) language acquisition.  Examples include:

  • Sensory memory — where we recognize the meaningful sounds (phonemes) of language.
  • Long-term memory — where we store (and retrieve) vocabulary, the rules of language — such as how a plural is formed and how to make a past-tense verb — as well as the exceptions to those rules.
  • Working memory (one of the three core executive functions) — where we hold information in mind while we understand it — working memory is also conscious processing and plays a vital role in all aspects of comprehension, but perhaps particularly so early in language acquisition when a learner relies more on translation.
  • Inhibitory control (another of the three core executive functions) — is the mental process that enables us to suppress word candidates, using a word in the new language rather than the automatic word we would naturally select.

Helping students build stronger cognitive skills can help English Language Learners accelerate their progress in learning their new language.  In research with Chinese-speaking students, 12 weeks of cognitive training with BrainWare SAFARI yielded 3 years 6 months of cognitive growth and 2 years 5 months of academic growth.  In research with Spanish-speaking high school students in an all-day bilingual program, cognitive training over an 8-week period, led to accelerated improvement in reading lexile levels.  Teachers also noticed a broader impact, offering comments such as, “I think this is an excellent way to improve memory, visualization, and strategizing. All of my students thought of it as a game, it kept their focus, and they showed improvements all around.”


If you have questions or need additional information on anything we discussed in this webinar, please email After you have watched this webinar, you can request a certificate of participation.

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