Could adults learn foreign languages as effortlessly as children?

Riikka Möttönen explores the mechanisms of cognition and language learning.

What are your research topics?

I study how the human brain enables linguistic and cognitive abilities. I am particularly interested in the collaboration between different brain mechanisms, and I have investigated, among other things, how the interaction between motor and sensory mechanisms affects speech perception.  

I often employ brain stimulation in my research to temporarily weaken a specific mechanism in order to measure how it affects the functioning of other mechanisms and the ability to process speech as well as form linguistic memory traces. This has proven to be an effective way of studying the origins of cognition and language in the brain. 

Where and how does the topic of your research have an impact?

Learning languages takes more effort for adults than children, even though the cognitive abilities of adults are more developed than those of children.  

Our new research results indicate that the cognitive brain mechanisms characteristic of adults restrict the functioning of the learning mechanisms that develop early. Momentarily dampening these cognitive mechanisms improves the language learning capacity of adults. We are investigating the topic further in a recently launched project funded by the Academy of Finland. 

Our work can result in new ways of teaching and studying languages at different ages. 

What is particularly inspiring in your field right now?

Cognitive science is a multidisciplinary field of research focused on the mind – there are an enormous number of interesting things happening in the field, including at the interface between AI research and brain research.  

I worked for a long time in the UK, which is why I am right now inspired by the launch of my research activities and a new work community at the University of Helsinki. 


Riikka Möttönen is the professor of natural and artificial cognitive systems at the Faculty of Arts.

Read about the other newly appointed professors.