Brain Research in the Foreign Language Classroom

Creating a Brain Compatible environment in your classroom.

  Teenage Brain: A work in progress         Myths and Misconceptions

In Search of . . . Brain-Based Education

Learning a Second Language May Not be as Laborious as Believed

Breakthrough in Brain Research: Learning languages without stress

        Research and Discussions on Language Learning after Puberty

        Merrill Swain (1979), a leader in the field of foreign language learning, believes that early immersion students enter into the process of learning a second language at a time when it does not compete with other interests, as it is an integral part of their normal school activity.  Older students, on the other hand, quickly recognize that learning a second language involves considerable time, dedication and effort, consequently preferring to spend their time and energy elsewhere.  In other words, older students may excel in their initial rate of second language learning as input is more comprehensible for them because of their background knowledge--they are faster acquirers as well as faster learners and because of this they have a greater ability to consciously learn grammar rules (Krashen & Terrell, 1983), while younger students excel in long-term second language achievement.  However, it is a myth to think that children find the process totally painless (Hakuta, 1986).  The most difficult learning task for children and adults alike may be the attempt to acquire second language proficiency in school environments (Asher, 1982).  It is simply not true that young children learn a new language more easily and quickly than adults because the many variables that are directly involved in the process of learning a language such as specific situations, input, interactions and most importantly, the amount of time invested in language learning in a quality program make language learning hard work for both groups.

        Research into the language learning difficulties of high school and college students revealed that phonological decoding deficits account for much of the variance between successful and unsuccessful language learning experiences (Ganschow, Javorsky, Pohlman & Bishop-Marbury, 1991; Gardner & Smythe, 1981; Strozer, 1994).  Providing more activities related to social interaction in a brain-compatible setting could possibly eliminate future problems associated with phonological processing difficulties involving phonetics (speech sounds), phonemics (relationships between speech sounds), or the development of syntax and creative language.  Tarone & Swain (1995) noted that children participating in immersion programs during the early grade levels tend to use the second language with each other in the classroom and socially to a much greater extent than children in the upper grade levels. They believe that situations where the second language is only used in the classroom generally occur within immersion classrooms where the second language is the superordinate or formal language used in the classroom for academic purposes, while the native language is reserved for use during informal social interactions.  Tarone and Swain (1995) refer to this as diglossia and speculate that a major reason for the reluctance of older immersion students to use the second language in social situations at higher grade levels is because of the increase of diglossic situations encountered in their daily activities.  Dahl (1997) reiterates this point stating that students are generally not taught the vernacular vocabulary which would allow them to communicate in social situations in the second language, thus forcing the students to speak in their native language.  

        The problem still remains with the thousands of secondary foreign language programs that attempt to influence second language learning during a two year period after the brain has initiated these early developmental phases described above.  Teachers must take a proactive stance and examine a different question—What information can brain research provide us with that will facilitate second language during the secondary school experience?  The answer lies with exploring ways to involve the students actively by incorporating many different instructional approaches including methodology utilized in early language learning into the secondary classroom setting, and creating a brain-compatible learning environment that enables students to excel at their own rate.

Language is not taught, rather it is learned through informal classroom structure that encourages social interaction (Morison, 1990).