Foreign language learning in older adults: anatomical and cognitive markers of vocabulary learning success

Manson Cheuk-Man Fong, Matthew King-Hang Ma, Jeremy Yin To Chui, Tammy Sheung Ting Law, Nga-Yan Hui, Alma Au, William Shiyuan Wang

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


In recent years, foreign language learning (FLL) has been proposed as a possible cognitive intervention for older adults. However, the brain network and cognitive functions underlying FLL has remained largely unconfirmed in older adults. In particular, older and younger adults have markedly different cognitive profile—while older adults tend to exhibit decline in most cognitive domains, their semantic memory usually remains intact. As such, older adults may engage the semantic functions to a larger extent than the other cognitive functions traditionally considered the most important (e.g., working memory capacity and phonological awareness). Using anatomical measurements and a cognitive test battery, the present study examined this hypothesis in twenty cognitively normal older adults (58–69 years old), who participated in a two-month Italian learning programme. Results showed that the immediate learning success and long-term retention of Italian vocabularies were most consistently predicted by the anatomical measures of the left pars orbitalis and left caudal middle frontal cortex, which are implicated in semantic and episodic memory functions. Convergent evidence was also found based on the pattern of cognitive associations. Our results are consistent with a prominent role of semantic and episodic memory functions in vocabulary learning in older learners.
Original languageEnglish
Article number787413
Number of pages24
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
Publication statusPublished - 7 Mar 2022


  • foreign language learning
  • vocabulary learning
  • structural MRI
  • FreeSurfer
  • pars orbitalis
  • caudal middle frontal cortex
  • semantic memory
  • episodic memory


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