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Implications of Neuroscience Research for Teaching Foreign Language Issue : January 2010
By : Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D.
What does neuroscience tell us about learning languages? Can the new field of Educational Neuroscience
inform our teaching practices?
While great strides have been made in the last few years in the field of Neuroimaging, “our notions are still
very primitive” (Horgan, 2009) and caution must be exercised in making leaps from brain research to
classroom practices.
However, we can gain insight into the learning process and infer ways to improve our teaching practices.
Three basic understandings about how the brain learns language and foreign language with implications for
the classroom can be helpful for educators. At the current time it appears that: 1) language learning involves
creating networks in the brain, 2) foreign language learning involves creating a second network, and 3)
foreign languages put increased demand on additional networks beyond the language network.
All learning involves creating networks in the brain. In the process of learning, the brain makes connections
from existing information in the brain to new material, thus expanding and creating neural networks.
It can be said that the first language consists of a network or “map” in the brain. Infants develop this map
both prenatally and in early infancy.
Infants are busy listening to sounds and acquiring an unconscious understanding of what sounds go together
in the language(s) that they are hearing.
This gets mapped in their brain as the network develops. By 9 months infants exhibit a strong preference for
the pattern typical of their native language (Jusczyk, Cutler, & Redanz, 1993).
The second assumption is that learning a foreign language means that the learner must create a second
map, or neural network.
These maps can differ substantially for speakers of different languages (Iverson & Kuhl, 1995; Iverson &
Kuhl, 1996b).
Being able to hear the differences in sounds between languages is critical to forming these new networks.
Starting around seven and a half months and continuing through puberty, the brain has more difficulty in
hearing distinctions in sounds or in creating a second map of sounds.
Kuhl hypothesizes that the neural commitment (the strong neural network) of the first language may
interfere with the foreign language learning when she states “neural commitment to a learned structure may
interfere with the processing of information that does not conform to the learned pattern” (Kuhl, 2000).
Some phonetic distinctions are more difficult to hear than others, such as the difficulty for Japanese speakers
to hear the difference between English “l” and “r.”
This difficulty has been illustrated through Neuroimaging. In one study, when English speakers heard “l” and
“r” two different areas in the brain were activated, while only one was activated in the Japanese speakers for
both “l” and “r” (Iverson & Kuhl, 1996a).Their brain could not hear the difference.
However, after extensive computer training with digitized sounds, the Japanese were able to hear the
difference. A post-scan showed that, as a result, two different areas were then activated, just as in the
English speakers.
However, at this time this kind of extensive training in hearing sounds is not feasible for the typical
The important point of this research for educators, I think, is that it helps us understand the effect of the
brain’s ability to differentiate sounds on the learner’s ability to pronounce them correctly or with an accent.
I believe this leads us to an enhanced and compassionate view of language learning.
The third assumption that we are making based on current neuroscience research is that learning a second
language involves parts of the brain beyond traditional language areas (Hernandez, 2009).
Compelling evidence suggests that both languages are active when only one is spoken. “This parallel
activation appears to apply to highly proficient bilinguals as well as foreign language learners”. (Kroll, Bobb,
Misra, & Guo, 2008).
The more areas involved, the more effort or fuel is required by the brain, meaning that the brain is working
harder when speaking a foreign language.
Typically, this means that the frontal lobes are heavily involved. The frontal lobe is considered the
“executive” part of the brain – the part that performs higher order functions, such as analysis, synthesis,
making decisions, delaying gratification, using good judgment, regulating emotion and so forth.
When the frontal lobes and other parts of the brain are working very hard, the learner experiences greater
cognitive load. Cognitive load is the amount of effort, attention, and fuel required by the brain to perform a
It is similar to when you are multitasking and trying to keep track of many things at once. You have to
concentrate hard and your brain gets fatigued easily.
If you go online and Google “Stroop task,” you can participate in an activity that will enable you to
experience greater cognitive load.
The current thinking is that when learners are speaking a foreign language, the frontal lobes must work with
both languages, similar to holding them both online, resulting in heavy cognitive load.
This may be a reflection of competition and conflict between languages. It appears that the less fluent the
speaker, the greater the frontal lobe involvement.
The educational implications of this are that our students’ brains are working harder than ours and will
fatigue more quickly.
It appears that this condition can improve with automaticity and proficiency (David W.Green, 2003).
Evidence suggests that bilinguals become skilled in managing the competition rather than avoiding it (Kroll et
al., 2008).
This information emphasizes the importance of insuring fluency on one task before introducing another. It
makes us think about how we can break up our lessons, or introduce one new idea at a time, and other ways
that we can reduce cognitive load for our students.
Furthermore, as part of this process, the attention network is also more heavily recruited in second language
(Hernandez, 2009).
Selective attention is the ability to screen out most of the vast amount of information coming in from our
senses and our stored memories and focus on a specific target.
Individuals vary in their ability to engage in or sustain selective attention. It seems that bilinguals can
perform better on tests of selective attention as a result of experience with managing two or more languages
(Costa, Hernandez, & Sebastian-Galles, 2008).
In addition, it appears that semantic retrieval is more effortful in a second less dominant language (Illes et
al., 1999).
Given the greater demands on the brain with foreign language learning and usage, how can we make
language learning easier for our students?
Most teachers know that the more modalities by which learning is encoded, the stronger the connection and
the better the learning.
However, typically, many teachers only know of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic modalities. But there are
many pathways in the brain highly involved in learning, including the frontal lobe and attention pathways
already mentioned.
By becoming aware of these multiple pathways, one can create more diverse lessons to reach diverse
learners. Therefore, a model outlining multiple pathways can be quite helpful when thinking about learning or
designing lessons.
The Multiple Pathways Model describes these pathways. Keep in mind, that the model is designed as an
efficient way to think about the many processes involved in learning.
These pathways are overlapping and not discreet. They can vary in activation at a given time and across
Three assumptions form the foundation of the Multiple Pathways Model : 1) the brain activates multiple
pathways in learning, 2) brains are very diverse, and 3) we want to teach from a variety of approaches.
Students struggling with language differences may benefit from varied approaches that help them build
connections to existing knowledge and strong networks of information.

The Multiple Pathways Model addresses key pathways implicated in learning, starting with the most
familiar and moving toward those we sometimes fail to consider.
Underlying this model is the assumption that learning involves making connections. The learner must connect
the new material to their existing network.
If they can’t, it will be hard to add the new information to the neural network.
The pathways described in the Multiple Pathways Model are interconnected and help the learner make more
and stronger connections. Some, but not all , components of the Multiple Pathways Model are presented
This pathway consists of the typical modalities that teachers are aware of: visual, auditory, and motor
(speech, kinesthetic).
While we understand that presenting information visually is important, we may have underestimated the
Images are important to the brain and enhance memory (Lindsay, Hagan, Read, Wade, & Garry, 2009)
(Lindsay, Hagan, Read, Wade, & Garry, 2004).
We have often relied on auditory presentation of information, but for language learners, coupling auditory
with visual and speech processes is more effective.
Speaking activates the motor cortex and involves different brain processes than hearing or seeing. Do you
have students say “I know it but I can’t say it or explain it?”
This can be the case because students have not formed the expressive pathway or the articulatory loop
involved in speaking (Marian, Spivey, & Hirsch, 2003).
Therefore, we want to include many opportunities for students to speak. Utilizing the range of sensory-motor
expression will enhance language learning.
Of course we are using the Language pathway in our language classrooms. Neuroscientists are convinced
that the earlier a foreign language is learned in school, the more easily learned.
We know that becoming fluent enough in a foreign language to perform academic tasks in that language
actually enhances one’s overall thinking, with improved cognition in classification skills, concept formation,
analogical reasoning, visual-spatial skills, and creativity (Baker, 1993).
This pathway keeps us alive as individuals and as a species through a pleasurable response to activities
necessary for survival, such as eating.
It is also activated during learning. Real learning is pleasurable to the brain.
In addition, the activity of detecting patterns is pleasurable. You can capitalize on this by creating lessons
wherein the student figures out the grammar rule from examples rather than memorizing a rule. Turn your
lessons into puzzles rather than memorization activities.
Recently, mirror neurons were discovered that activate when you see someone doing something the same as
if you were doing it.
This enables humans to learn by watching others, which is the way humans learned through most of human
One implication from this research is the importance of modeling in the classroom and learning-by-doing with
an opportunity to watch how others perform the tasks. Don’t forget to model the behavior you want.
One of the most important pathways that is always engaged in the classroom is the Emotion pathway.
Learning is state dependent.
Based on this principle, we have seen evidence that students perform better when tested if they are in
similar conditions to those in which they learned the material, i.e., same classroom, emotional state, or
similar context.
We should keep this in mind when testing. Furthermore, emotional material is more easily remembered by
How can you make your lessons more exciting or memorable? How can you create a more positive emotional
environment in your classroom?
Neuroscientists have a saying: Emotion drives attention and attention drives learning. Educators sometimes
mistakenly think that attention means taking in as much as possible around you.
We say “Pay attention!” but we don’t always state where that attention should be directed. As mentioned
earlier, fluent bilinguals may perform better on tasks of selective attention.
Emotional engagement is effective in capturing and sustaining attention in the classroom. How can you
adjust your lessons to work with the range of abilities for sustained attention?
Frontal Lobes.
Many pathways recruit the frontal lobes, which are known as the executive part of the brain. As discussed
earlier, speaking a foreign language puts greater demand on the frontal lobes and increases cognitive load.
Your students’ brains are working hard and will fatigue quickly. How can you adjust your lessons to reduce
cognitive load?
As you may have discovered, these pathways overlap and interact. This brief overview is sufficient only to
stimulate thinking. The goal is to incorporate as many of these pathways as possible into every lesson.
By thinking of the multiple pathways involved in learning, we can design strategies to enhance our classroom
One clear implication from the scientific research is that we are probably all wired differently and while the
brain engages multiple pathways, the nature of these can vary with individuals.
While this bridge between science and education is new and must be approached with caution, we can keep
informed about the research and use it to stimulate our thinking about how we can diversify our strategies
and become more effective in reaching all learners.
*Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D., is a cognitive neuroscientist and former high school and college teacher. She
conducts workshops on various topics bridging brain research and education internationally including the
Multiple Pathways Model and Second Language and the Brain. Dr. Janet Zadina, is a
plenary speaker at the 31st Annual TESOL Greece International Convention, on March 13-14, at the Hellenic
American Union, Athens