Language learning and the brain
15 December, 2016 Languages Char Willis-Jones
Have you ever wondered why learning a new language becomes more of a challenge as we get older? Tiny babies seem to learn how to speak without even trying, whilst as adults, we struggle with new forms of grammar, vocabulary and writing. It turns out that humans are hardwired for language learning, but our brains both help and hinder the process.
The human brain is split into two sections, or hemispheres. Language is processed by different parts of the brain’s left hemisphere, which is where the problems start. You might be good at speaking, but lack any talent for writing, and this is because speaking, listening, reading and writing are all organised separately within the brain.
When we try to learn a second (or third, or fourth) language, we are trying to squeeze a lot of information into these already stuffed areas. It’s no wonder that we find it so difficult. Studies on brains which have suffered damage show that our brains are very resourceful, and able to teach different parts of itself to function in new ways. That means that the more we train our brains, the better they will work – it is all a matter of practice.
Here are some tips to help you start using more of your brain in your studies:
STOP THINKING, START DOING
First of all, stop worrying. Stress releases cortisol, a chemical which slows brain function. Remember that language learning comes as naturally to humans as radar does for bats, or making honey does for bees. We all learned our mother tongue without any real effort, because we were surrounded by that language day and night. The more you are around a language, the more your brain will naturally absorb words, so go out and explore. Simply listen to conversations everywhere you go – on the bus, in cafés, in the supermarket. Your brain will automatically start trying to understand.
We can train our brains just like we can train our bodies. The more we use it, the stronger it will become, especially if we work on connecting the separate parts of our brain. Multi-tasking is a great way to do this. Try taking notes while you are listening to a podcast (writing + listening) or reading a magazine article out loud (speaking + reading). By using multiple skills at the same time, you will make stronger connections between the different language-learning areas of the brain, and be able to learn much more quickly.
There is a reason babies don’t speak perfectly straight away. Learning a language means taking on a huge amount of new information, which takes time to organise in our minds. Help your brain by practising as much as possible, so that it learns the correct way to speak, read, and write. Pick a few sentences from a movie you like and try repeating them in the shower, or write ten or fifteen sentences to practise a grammar point you’re struggling with.
If you’re interested in learning more about language, why not take a look at our previous blog post discussing FOREIGN LANGUAGES YOU’VE NEVER THOUGHT OF LEARNING.