Language and the brain: What Neuroscience Tells us about Second Language Learning

What is the brain?

The brain is a jungle. It’s a pulsating, breathing, evolving ecosystem that teems with life. It has stand-alone features – the equivalent of trees and rivers and swamps – but everything is connected to everything else.

It’s made up of cells called neurons. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, reckons these cells are “about as complicated as New York City.” And we have 10 billion of them. Their job is to make networks. Different regions of the brain are specialized: hearing, sight, bodily sensations, etc., but these regions work together to give us our multi-sensory experience of the world.

brain and language











How does the brain learn? Ask your PET CAT.

Thanks to technological developments of the last few decades, we know more than ever about how the brain learns. Various types of scan – MRI, PET and CAT – give us access to what’s happening at the molecular level. When we learn something new, the information is transmitted along a neural pathway until it is stored temporarily in short-term memory. If the brain believes the input to be important, the input gets processed to the neurons in the amygdala (responsible for memory, emotions, decision-making, etc.) and moves to an area in the brain where we store information more permanently rather than dismiss it. It’s the difference between the Save and Delete options on your computer.

When we need to apply what we know, our neurodevelopmental functions spring into action. These consist of attention, higher order cognition, memory, language, neuromotor functions, spatial ordering, temporal sequential ordering, and social cognition. They work like little gangs to achieve tasks, so one gang helps us learn to ride a bicycle, another to do advanced algebra, another to fry an egg.

From knowledge of how learning happens, we can infer how teaching should happen. Here are a few ideas:


The brain functions in many ways simultaneously: it picks up smells and sounds and sights, etc., and refers these to other smells and sounds and sights that it encountered previously. Thus we make connections. If we smell coffee, we may recall the taste of it, or visualize a field of coffee beans in the foothills of the Andes, or remember grandma brewing a pot in her kitchen. The strength of these connections is vital to learning.

coffee beans

What does this mean for teachers? We need to relate new information to previously learned information. We do this by using techniques for recapping: quick-writes, mini-quizzes, mind-maps, or revision games such as ‘backs to the board’ or ‘ask and tell.’

We also need to present information in multiple modes: images, movement and music, as well as words. The more sensory input that accompanies the new information, the better the chance of retaining it. Mel Levine, in A Mind at a Time, recommends changing a verbal task into a visual one and then changing a visual task into a kinesthetic one.


Judy Willis, in Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning, writes “Attention is a process of selecting the most relevant information from the mass of sensory input all around us.”

Naturally, we ignore most of the stimuli around us. The brain is hardwired only to pay attention to things that help us survive. The question, then, for teachers, is how to capture students’ attention. Socrates said that all learning begins with wonder, and sure enough, we find that novelty, surprise, humor, movement, drama, color and creative use of space can help. Laughter produces endorphins and dopamine, which stimulate the brain. Movement produces epinephrine (adrenalin).








Research into memory tells us it has many different components: short term, long-term, active working memory, storage, retrieval, explicit and implicit memory. We might believe we ‘know’ something even if we only deposited it into short-term memory. This is why we can study all night for an exam, remember everything we need, and forget it all within 24 hours.

The development of long-term memory in learning requires students to be engaged, to do something with the information: create, re-order, rank, re-design, extend, manipulate in some way so that the student takes ownership of it. It means educators must embrace active learning and set challenging tasks, because the brain that does the work is the brain that learns.

It also means students need to encounter new information several times. In language learning, estimates vary as to how many times we need to process a word in order to acquire it in long-term memory (see previous post on memory). But we do know that spaced repetition is essential. To use Michael Lewis’s analogy, exposure to target language has to recur like a bouncing ball – we need to see, hear or use the new language again and again and again.

bouncing ball





Left brain, right brain

Carl Jung once wrote, “In each of us there’s another whom we do not know.” According to Roger Sperry’s theory, the left side of the brain deals with logic, order and linear analytical skills. The right side is responsible for creativity, imagination and intuition. The two sides of the brain are actually more similar than commonly thought, but the implication is that teachers should try to involve both sides of the brain to enhance learning.

Various activities use both sides. For example, ask students to measure something in class with a part of the body (“this paper is six noses long”; “this book is three fingers wide”); “walk around the classroom and touch seven things that are the colors of the rainbow, then write them down in alphabetical order”; “ask a question and throw a ball to the person you wish to answer it.” In regular education, a great teacher might use music to teach mathematics or art to teach biology, or vice versa. In language classrooms we can use anything to teach anything.

left brain right brain


In 1988, Stephen Krashen introduced a theory about what he called “the Affective Filter.” The idea is that when students are under excessive stress, a mental blockage occurs which prevents them from learning. The theory proved correct. Ten years later, researchers found – through neuroimaging – a part of the amygdala that corresponds to the affective filter.

For educators, the theory means that an ideal learning environment avoids undue stress. How to achieve this? Through building rapport with students, pitching the content and tasks at the right level, promoting a positive atmosphere through encouragement and team-building, and by engaging in ongoing dialogue about how the students are improving.

In online learning, adaptive software can play a part in reducing stress. It tracks the student’s progress and guides them along a path customized for their own particular needs. This may prove beneficial to those students who are left behind or slowed down by the pace of the class.


We started with the metaphor of the brain as a jungle. It’s difficult to navigate your way through either, and our journey to understand the brain is only just beginning. As we learn more about how the brain processes, stores, and recalls information, we’ll learn more about how to enrich our students’ learning.

One Comment on “Language and the brain: What Neuroscience Tells us about Second Language Learning”

  1. It’s amazing how the brain can process so much information, and you have answered the question why you can study overnight, and forget about the whole thing in 24 hours tops. This would give people a better insight about their path in studying, and adapt their system so that the can learn better. Fostering an environment conducive to learning through behavioral and environmental changes should be encouraged as there’s no point in teaching if the student cannot retain information due to outside influences.

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