The Mind, Brain, and Education Science and ELT

Another guest post – thank you to the wonderful André Hedlund for sharing his thoughts on the relationships between neuroscience and language learning and for debunking some all-too-prevalent neuromyths.

I grew up thinking that if I wanted to learn another language and become proficient, I’d have to start at a very young age. And to be fair I did. Not because of what I wanted, of course. My parents pushed me and I believe I must’ve been 6 or 7 when I had my first English class. My dad was fluent, like most Swedes, but my mom wasn’t. She only knew it was important for me to start early. Paradoxically, Swedish was not important at all, at least in my parents’ minds. Even worse, if I tried to learn it while learning English and if my dad insisted on only talking in Swedish to me at home, that meant that I wouldn’t learn any language well, including Portuguese, my mother tongue, and that was a horrible thing to consider.

The story above illustrates what the average population thinks about language learning. When I say average here I’m actually including educated people too. It’s just something we hear from teachers, “specialists”, pedagogues, other parents. Now I’m sitting in a café in possibly one of the most multilingual countries in Europe,  Switzerland, and the sad part of this story is that I could be at least as good as my cousin who’s in her early twenties, has been raised in a multilingual home and is fluent in Portuguese, French, Italian, German, and English. My aunt, her mom, is Brazilian and didn’t know any better. She only wanted to make sure her daughter grew up with a Brazilian sense of identity and could talk to her family when she traveled to Brazil. Her dad just spoke the language that was the most natural to him: Swiss German. The others she learned at school.

My Swedish would be thriving if it were not for this false claim about how our brains work when it comes to language learning, a neuromyth as commonly referred to. Neuromyths about language acquisition and learning, and basically everything else, are widespread. “Kids are going to get confused if the foreign language is predominant at home”, “You’re too old to learn a second language”, “That new school has created a revolutionary method that makes you fluent in six months”, “I don’t have the talent to learn languages”, “Native-speaker teachers are way better”. Many of these ideas could be debunked if we just stopped and looked at what research says about language learning. 

Speaking of research, the great news is that we now have an exciting new science that looks at the contributions of neuroscience, psychology, and education, summarizes them into practical concepts and allows educators, teachers, parents, school owners, and policymakers to inform their decisions on sound scientific evidence. It is called the science of Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE). Tokuhama-Espinosa (2014) stresses the fact that MBE is a transdisciplinary approach that does not prioritize any one parent field (neuroscience, psychology, or education) over the others. That is important because many of the neuromyths stated above came to existence because of claims based only on neuroscience or only on psychology as I describe ahead.

One of the common neuromyths is that it is impossible, or at least nearly impossible, to learn a second language after the so-called critical period. Many authors have contributed to this notion, particularly Penfield (1959), Lenneberg (1967), and Krashen (1973), influenced by studies in animal models in the 50s and 60s about other functions and critical periods (see Hubel & Wiesel, 1959) which seemed to be confirmed with the case of feral children and L1, such as Genie (Curtiss, 1977). Nevertheless, when language is considered in its entirety, not only phonologically, with an obsessive focus on near-native accent, we could easily say that research shows that anyone can learn a second language to proficiency after the so-called critical period or periods. That’s the thing, different authors propose different critical periods for different aspects of language (see Kuhl et al. 2014; Hartshorne et al. 2018). But we now have plenty of evidence to support the idea that the brain is highly plastic and that we can learn at any age (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). Science supports the notion that what really matters is how far you go and not how early you started (Abutalebi, 2008; Andrews et al 2013).

We also know that children and adults benefit from bilingualism (and multilingualism) (Marian & Shook, 2012). Some of the cognitive gains are improved learning, better reasoning and mathematical skills, improved school performance, and protection against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia (delaying the early symptoms by 5 years!).

Research on how long it takes to learn English as a second or foreign language varies greatly but it does not differ significantly from the recommended amount of hours by the Common Europen Framework of Reference (CEFR). Hakuta et al. (2000) studied foreign kids in two districts in California and it took them 3 to 5 years to be orally proficient and 4 to 7 to be academically proficient in English. A technical report by Pearson (click here) suggests that fast learners will enter the B2 level after 760 hours of study, which is more than what CEFR suggests ( around 500-600 hours). 

Whichever the reference when we’re discussing second language learning, we can safely assume that learning a language from scratch in 6 months would require something like 100 hours a month (around 5 hours a day from Monday to Friday) and assume that students can handle the enormous amount of information they’d be exposed to, allowing their brains to consolidate memory, which requires time and space. It may as well be possible, but not quite likely, particularly in an English as a Foreign Language context where students are only exposed to L2 in class. That’s why we need to be highly suspicious of methods that promise such incredible outcomes. Nevertheless, as I said, it could be possible. In fact, I could talk about memorization techniques used by memory athletes and go on about this, but I’ll save that for a future post because it’s not the reality for most of us.

Finally, the research we have available on how effective native-speaker teachers are and how they are viewed by students suggests that both native and non-native teachers can be equally effective and preferred by the students, which means that what really matters is teaching qualification and effort to cater to students’ needs (Mossu, 2006; Mullock, 2010; Chun, 2014; Wang & Jenkins, 2016).

All these discoveries came from serious research and they have real implications in ELT. The wrong, or partially wrong, ideas being spread for ages may contribute to stigmatization, exclusion, reduced motivation, capitalization on methods that actually do not work and the like. That’s where MBE is handy: to fight against neuromyths and inform everyone about how we actually learn. Let’s just say that if my mom and dad had known about these things that MBE is trying to promote back in the day when I was growing up, I’d have learned Swedish and probably be quite fluent nowadays. Who knows, I might even have gotten better grades at school because of the cognitive gains. Well, I suppose we’ll never know now and I’ll have to keep talking to my half-siblings in English.

My final message to those of you who are in education, ELT or any area that involves learning: learn about MBE and help debunk some of the neuromyths. Start from Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa’s wonderful book Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. That’s a great starting point. If we all learn more about how the brain actually works and follow the new developments of neuroscience, particularly how they can be applied in educational settings, everyone wins. 

Andrews, E., Frigau, L., Voyvodic-Casabo, C., Voyvodic, J., & Wright, J. (2013). Multilingualism and fMRI: Longitudinal Study of Second Language Acquisition. Brain sciences, 3(2), 849-76. doi:10.3390/brainsci3020849

Abutalebi J (2008) Neural aspects of second language representation and language control. Acta Psychol 128: 466–478.

Chun, S. Y. (2014). EFL learners’ beliefs about native and non-native English-speaking teachers: perceived strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 35(6), 563–579.

Curtiss, S. (1977). Genie: A psycholinguistic study of a modern-day “wild child”. New York: Academic Press

Hakuta, K., Butler, Y. G., & Witt, D. (2000). How Long Does It Take English Learners To Attain Proficiency?.

Hartshorne, Tenenbaum, & Pinker. (2018). A critical period for second language acquisition:Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers. Cognition, 177, 263-277.

Hubel, D., & Wiesel, T. (1959). Receptive fields of single neurones in the cat’s striate cortex. The Journal of Physiology, 148, 574-91.

Krashen, S. (1973). Lateralization, language learning, and the critical period. Language Learning, 23, 63–74.

Kuhl PK, Ramírez RR, Bosseler A, Lin JF, Imada T. (2014). Infants’ brain activity in response to speech. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Aug 2014, 111 (31) 11238-11245; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1410963111

Lenneberg, E. H. (1967). The biological foundations of language. Hospital Practice, 2(12), 59-67.

3 thoughts on “The Mind, Brain, and Education Science and ELT”

  1. Nice description of many wrong pre-conceived notions that really do effect how we approach learning a language.

    I’d caution however the current trendy “brain based” research and cognitive psychology in general as applied to making conclusions about teaching and learning. We just don’t know enough. Studies are founded on machines beeping and coloring and not any underlying understanding (fundamentally) about what is happening with our brain. So we get horrible “myths” like vocabulary is stored (it isn’t – the brain doesn’t store information) or memory for X is associated with Y parts of the brain. I could go on (especially about cognitive load which is pushed out there are gospel but there is a lot of dispelling research pointing to something else other than “load” occuring.

  2. Lovely to come across this blog full of juicy content and references. Please, subscribe me to your mailing. I’m an educator in the Brazilian bilingual education context and sure will benefit from following you. Thank you!

  3. Andre,

    It is a great article that confirms your previous statement: “I don’t recommend anything that hasn’t been thoroughly studied and validated by the scientific community.” Great!

    However, suppose we elaborate on David Deubelbeiss’s comment. In that case, we may find antithesis to why scientific research may be misleading: “I’d caution however the currently trendy “brain-based” research and cognitive psychology in general as applied to making conclusions about teaching and learning. We just don’t know enough. Studies are founded on machines beeping and coloring and not any underlying understanding (fundamentally) about what is happening with our brain.”

    I would add that all studies made with the assumption that adults learn a language consciously. Imagine that we discover that subconscious training in language skills is much more efficient than obsolete conscious learning and memorization. In this case, all scientific research will be announced outdated and would be discarded.

    The phrase ‘validated by scientific community’ is not the final proof of truth. By the way, how can we explain that with all achievements of our scientific community, we observe: “Less than one percent of American adults today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom?”

    Another example: Japan ranks third in the global ranking and 53rd in English proficiency! The only explanation for these facts – the conventional methods of learning ESL are obsolete despite our great scientific community!

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