Despite the best efforts of teachers, students, and parents, learning a new language is challenging, and at times can be frustrating or even traumatic. However, by applying a few basics of brain-based education — what neuroscience and educational psychology have taught us about the brain and learning — teachers can dramatically change what happens in their classrooms and inside their students’ brains.
1. Break down barriers to learning
The first thing for teachers to realize is that when students enter the classroom they are rarely ready to learn. Students enter class with layers of stress from daily life, learning anxiety (often amplified for language-learners), fatigue, and restlessness. Their brains are producing chemicals that physically impede learning. Trying to teach under these conditions, teachers will often feel as if they are talking to a wall; and in a sense they are. It’s nearly impossible for any learning to take place unless teachers can break down this barrier and affect a chemical change in students’ brains.
Starting class with five to 10 minutes of exercise — a combination of stretching, cardio, breathing exercise, meditation, etc. — will help reduce stress and fatigue, and will improve brain chemistry by oxygenating blood, improving blood and energy circulation throughout the body, and lowering stress-hormone levels in the brain. For added benefit, teachers should encourage students to smile and focus on their bodies during the exercise. One or two minutes of deep (abdominal) breathing and/or meditation at the end of the routine can also create a state of relaxed and focused awareness that is optimal for learning.
2. Create meaning and motivation
Teachers faced with curriculums that overemphasize grammar and vocabulary feel a real challenge in creating meaningful experiences and motivating students to learn. No matter what society (or a test) determines students “need” to know, learning will not happen unless a student’s brain actually decides, “I need — and want — to know this.” The brain seeks meaning and works to connect with new information. If teachers cannot help students make sense of new targets and create meaningful, useful language, it will be soon forgotten.
In order to help move learning to long-term memory, teachers must connect new language and learning directly to previous learning and experiences, so that the brain can make sense of the information and use it in a meaningful, personal way. Once this happens, the language not only has meaning, but it actually begins to matter, as students find themselves personally invested — intrinsically motivated — in their studies. At this point, teachers can help students identify ways to use a foreign language as a tool to achieve their goals and dreams.
3. Engage the whole brain and body in language-learning experiences
The whole brain and body is involved in the process of communication, with verbal and nonverbal information being consciously and subconsciously passed from one individual to another. Gestures and body language play a critical role in authentic communication, and are also valuable tools teachers can use to deepen language-learning by activating parts of the brain associated with both language and physical movement. In order to do this, teachers must allow students to personalize the language and then train them to use appropriate gestures that facilitate communication.
Activating students’ imaginations is the key to creating meaningful, personal experiences with new language. Whenever a teacher asks students to imagine or think about something, they provide precious time for synapses to send messages from neuron to neuron and collect all available information — knowledge, personal experiences, emotions, gestures, etc. — associated with the topic. This extra think-time is especially important for students learning to communicate in a non-native language, as it takes longer to organize and collect information across the newer language pathways. Using the imagination to create personal language gives students true ownership and mastery over the targets by allowing students to activate areas of the neocortex and limbic system associated with emotions and long-term memory. The more teachers encourage students to imagine — using all five senses, personal experience, emotions, etc. — the more the brain is activated and engaged in the language experience. The more vivid the imagined or recalled experience, the deeper the language-learning can go.
Danielle Little teaches English as a foreign language (EFL) at BR English, a private English company located in South Korea. The vision of BR English is to provide all English-language learners with enriching, personalized experiences that will help them to find success and use their English in creative, productive, and peaceful ways.