Learning a whole new language is a difficult task. Think about how difficult it is for you to remember a ‘to-do’ list, a phone number, or a line of poetry. Now, think about how difficult it would be to memorize the entire lexicon of a foreign language, say Icelandic. Finally, think about how difficult it would be to not only memorize all of those words, but to memorize how to put them together in grammatically correct ways that make sense to native speakers. In short, it is an infuriatingly hard thing to do. Fortunately, study into the way the mind works, or Cognitive Science (CS), has led to some improvements in the way foreign languages (FL) are taught by way of a better understanding of how the mind works. Understanding the mechanisms by which the brain learns has allowed FL teachers to teach students not only how to use the target language but also how to learn it. There is so much to say about the implications of CS on FL learning, but I only want to write about three in this post – how learning physically happens in the brain, learning styles, and how CS led to Artificial Intelligence that is helpful in the FL learning process.
Cognitive Science has led to an understanding of the way the human brain works, thereby giving us a window into the way a person thinks and learns. What we know about the way the brain physically learns something is that the brain is made up of billions of neurons that hold information gathered through a person’s experiences in the world, which are then encoded in the neuron as a memory, and that these neurons are grouped into individual circuits, which are made up of 10,000 neurons that have “tens of thousands of millions of connections” (streetwisdombilly, 2010) between them. These neurons transmit information, or memories, from one to the other by building connections, like a bridge, that they can then cross over more easily the next time that circuit is activated. Ensuring that the bridge holds requires repeated activation of that circuit by way of performing, or repeating, the action that created the connection in the first place. In fact, “when people repeatedly practice an activity or access a memory, their neural networks…shape themselves according to that activity or memory. When people stop practicing new things, the brain will eventually eliminate, or ‘prune,’ the connecting cells that formed the pathways” (Bernard, 2010). This means that practice is the best way to reinforce the neural connections created when something is learned or risk losing it.
Understanding how the mind works helps a person to understand how they learn, which, in turn, allows them adopt better, more effective learning strategies. In order to adopt a better learning strategy, a person should know more about their learning style. In fact, taking the Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire (http://www.engr.ncsu.edu/learningstyles/ilsweb.html) helped me to identify that I am prone to getting stalled on projects because I spend too much time thinking about them instead of actually doing anything. Take this assignment, for example. I thought about what I wanted to do, which direction I wanted to take my post in, and found myself stalled more than once. Knowing this was a part of my learning style, I just started writing something, which led us here. Learning styles essentially tell a person which sensory organ is their brain’s favorite with which to learn something new. When someone is trying to learn a new language, should they focus one organ over another? No, of course not. It is best to pump information into the brain through as many channels as possible. The more input the brain has – physical stimulus, visual, auditory – the more neural connections will form and more will be learned. Because “Language learning…is intertwined with the other language skills, such as reading, writing, and listening” (Wang, 2007, p 1), it is important to stimulate all of these senses in the language learning process.
Understanding how the brain works, has also led to the creation of artificial intelligence smart enough to aid in the language learning process. Take Lucy for example. It is a program that has a massive dictionary and an algorithm that allows it to communicate on a rudimentary level. Since “generally speaking, one of the most important things for language learning is interaction” (Yang, 2007, p 2), Lucy allows language learners to interact with “someone” in their target language. This would not have been possible without Cognitive Science because understanding how information is transmitted along neural networks in the brain provided the template used in the construction of AI.
To conclude, there are billions of tiny cells in your brain that travel through tiny pathways to each of your sensory organs – your skin, your eyes, your ears, your tongue, and your nose – and carry information from your sensory organs straight to your brain, where the neurons share this information with other neurons by way of building bridges to between them. This means that thinking, learning, and being you is all because of the firing of these tiny little cells. Everything you are and everything you know about yourself and the world boils down to electrical activity in the brain. What an astonishing idea. Cognitive science has given us the tools to discover and understand this and to better understand how we learn about our world. Again, Cognitive Science has so many implications on foreign language learning and teaching, but there are too many to cover in this post and, besides, this post has gone on long enough.
Bernard, S. (2010, December 1). Neuroplasticity: Learning Physically Changes the Brain.
Streetwisdombilly. (2010, June 10). How We Learn – Synapses and Neural Pathways. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/BEwg8TeipfQ
Yang, S. (2007, April). Artificial Intelligence for Integrating English Oral Practice and Writing Skills. Sino-US English Teaching, 4(4), 1-7