The Magic of Learning Language


language learning

The significant problems that we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. —Albert Einstein

If a more complicated entity than the human brain exists on Earth, it has succeeded in maintaining its confidential nature. Not only is the brain the most multifaceted organ in the human body, and composed of the greatest number of diverse cell types in a single organ, it is also the most adaptable and complex single object in the known universe.

Prior to the 1990s, most information gathered about the human brain came largely by way of misfortune — brain-injured patients or disease. The balance of our knowledge was speculative or intelligent deductive conclusions. Brain injuries and postoperative behavior changes gave us a peek into the nature of processes such as movement, memory, and language.

Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), a leading thinker of his day, was an advocate of the “cardiocentric” view of cognition. He believed the heart was central to all cognitive responsibilities, including morality and higher intelligence. The brain was relegated to a more humble undertaking: cooling the warm blood circulated by the heart (demoted to the menial role of radiator). Today, we still refer to successfully memorized information as content we know “by heart.”

Language Learning

When we look closely at the human cerebral cortex, it resembles an oversized quilt, bunched up to cover the subcortical structures busily operating beneath it. If one unfolded and stretched out the cerebral cortex, its surface area could cover a desktop (2,500 cm2). Six seamless paperlike layers, neatly stacked together, form the human cortex. The interactions between these neuron-rich layers foster the biological basis of our incredible catalog of human behaviors, including language.

Language is one of the most crucial competencies mastered by the human brain, although learning to speak has the appearance of an ordinary phase in child development. Virtually any person can learn one or more of the 6,000 languages spoken today. Our 100 billion networked neurons actively seek external auditory stimuli in order for the brain’s language systems to develop.

Multisensory experience is ideal for language development. It often takes four different exposures — seeing, hearing, touching, tasting — before information enters into long-term memory. Experience also establishes all associations for a given word.

When a new concept is processed, its elements are stored in numerous interconnected neural networks throughout the brain. A memory is easier to recall when there are several routes back to the target concept. The definition for a word is coupled with other words to which it is experientially linked. Priming the memory of one word simultaneously revives the memories of other connected words. “Word webs” are incredibly effective language-learning tools that demonstrate the power that a single word has in coaxing other words out of hiding during thinking, speaking, listening, reading, or writing. The more frequently that specialized language patterns in the brain fire together, the more they will permanently “hardwire” themselves together for increased usefulness.

What have we learned about teaching language from this research? Teaching any language should not begin with a sudden, formal immersion into the printed word. Human beings have always been born to learn, but not born to read — the brain’s existing neural circuitry adapted itself to support the requirements of this new task. Unlike our five basic senses, proficiency in reading has to be taught and learned.

From Object Recognition to Word Recognition

Circles, spheres, squares, blocks, cylinders, and cones are among the 24 basic “geons” (geometric forms) that we see in our natural environment. Most letters mimic these forms. Simplistic representations of concrete objects elicit a mental reminiscence of the “real thing.” When one, two or three geons are combined, their orientation and arrangement can bring to mind over 10 million objects and patterns found in the world. For example, the image of an automobile is brought to life by two circles placed beneath two rectangles; a cone and two circles can suggest either a clown or an ice cream cone, depending on their size and orientation. These patterns are ripe for modification into symbols. Oral and written language reflect the cognitive relationships that link objects, images, thoughts, and words together into the single complicated event we experience as symbolic communication.


The theory of object recognition seeks to explain how stimuli entering the visual cortex are matched with internal representations of those same forms (now stored in neural pathways). This matching strategy helps us make sense of visual information. Since object-processing in the brain preceded symbolic-processing abilities, the “words” found in many languages were initially created directly from pictorial representations of objects. Symbolic imaging is, and has always been, easier for the human brain to digest than written words.

Brain-building experiences alter the very architecture of the language-sensitive centers in the brain and craft clear passageways to school-readiness and success. But it is impossible to build extensively on weak foundations. Language should be learned through a sequence of events (see “The Seven Steps to Language Learning”). Informed by cognitive research, successful classrooms utilize this seven-step sequence for symbolic-language development, with plenty of opportunities along the way for expressive language.

Active learning experiences provide the most substantive basis for language development; for example, a scenario involving objects that can later be used as catalysts for creating images in the mind’s eye. Object imaging to reproduce a thought is easier than processing abstract ideas. The mental constructs derived from firsthand experiences, especially when verbalized, later serve as the foundational basis for processing symbols, abstractions, and other forms of complex thinking. Oral language develops in a “phonological loop,” where a child begins to listen to her own voice while speaking and, later, while reading. If she is fortunate enough to have others read to her, learning to read will be an easier transition.

Abstractions become less abstract to a young brain when there is a neural connection that takes one’s mind back to the tangible and concrete basis for one’s understandings.

Unfortunately, more often than not in our schools, formal language instruction begins at the seventh stage of this sequence. The national push for “early literacy” standards runs counter to what we know from developmental neuroscience and research on how the young brain creates a capacity for processing language. Some say, “We don’t have time to teach all of these steps.” If time is not planned for the first six generative steps for language learning, in all fairness to the learner, we will need to lower our language-learning expectations.

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We believe that neuroscience is the next great scientific frontier, and that advances in understanding the nature of the brain, consciousness, behavior, and health will transform human life in this century.

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