For most of us, thinking about how our brains work is pretty low on the day’s to-do list. We just let our brain get on with the thousands of jobs it does every day, and we ignore just how amazing our brains are. Well, in today’s conversation in English we are going to talk about some interesting science about how language learners’ brains actually work when learning a language.
Humans do a lot of things on autopilot. We unconsciously let our brains manage really important tasks, like breathing, sleeping, and we don’t really think much about it.
Take walking, for example, seems simple enough, right? But did you know you were using around 200 bones and over 600 muscles just to take a step, and before you take that step your brain is assessing a lot of sensory data from your eyes, your ears, nose and feedback from nerves in real-time as you take that single step. It’s amazing that we don’t even bother to think about this as we walk thousands of steps every day. Just walking and talking at the same time is a huge effort for your brain.
So it won’t surprise you that there is a lot of autopilot brain behaviour going on when we learn a language. In today’s listen and learn English language conversation, we take a peek inside the human brains of people who speak and understand multiple languages, polyglots.
Extrapolate Neuroscientists Cumulative Polyglot Accelerated
Hi and welcome to this podcast from Adept English.
Today – two sets of thoughts about your English language learning. The first. You know that I like to read up about neuroscience – it’s part of my job as a psychotherapist to remain informed – it helps my practice. But it’s also interesting to learn and read about what’s happening in your brain when you learn a language too – and that helps Adept English. So a piece of research which caught my eye recently, from the University of Tokyo and which was published in Science Daily.
A group of researchers were wanting to understand more about those people who are multilingual, that’s MULTILINGUAL – or ‘polyglots’ is another word for that. Those amazing people who are fluent not just in their own language and a second language, but who can seemingly speak multiple languages with ease. Learning a language properly, thoroughly, so that you can speak it fluently - well, we all know that this takes a long time. That’s why we’re all here! So what’s happening – how come some people can learn multiple languages like this? Are they super-human?
So neuroscientists have a great advantage these days – it’s now possible to do a brain scan. This means you put someone in the MRI machine and scan their brain, while the person uses their brain for a certain activity. And the MRI – Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine will show which parts of the brain are active, which parts of the brain light up, with different activities.
So this is a piece of research, done by two professors, Professor Kuniyoshi Sakai from the University of Tokyo and Professor Suzanne Flynn from MIT worked together on this. They organised a study with 21 bilingual people – that’s people who speak 2 languages and 28 multilingual people – so that’s people who speak three or more languages.
The people, the study participants were given a new language to learn, one that none of them knew – and that was Kazakh, that’s KAZAKH. And they were introduced to the Kazakh language mainly through listening – the more natural way to learn a language, as we know.
They were tested on how quickly and how well they learned to apply the new grammar rules in the Kazakh language – grammar rules which of course were unfamiliar to all of them. And this was done with MRI scanning. So learning to apply the rules of grammar means that you have ‘to extrapolate’, that’s a verb, EXTRAPOLATE – and that means you have to extend the information that you have to include new things.
For example, if you know that the English present tense is ‘I write, he writes’, then if you’re practised at language learning, like the multilingual people in the study, then you might arrive more quickly at the realisation that if you learn it’s ‘I write, he writes’, then it must also be ‘I read, he reads’, even without being taught that. So that’s an ‘extrapolation’ – something that you work out, you ‘extend’ your information, if you like, you extend your understanding into other areas.
So the volunteers in the test had to keep answering questions on grammar – until they got them right and only then could they move on. And it was found that the multilingual participants learned more quickly – and the pace of their learning accelerated. Language is like a mechanism, with a lot of moving parts – it works ‘in concert’ – that’s how grammar is.
So what seems to be important here, is that the parts of the brain, shown by the MRI imaging, which are concerned with seeing patterns in language more quickly were engaged faster in the multilingual people. So the ability to make generalisations, to see patterns and be able to extrapolate (that verb again) and to be able to build more quickly on the knowledge already gained.
This was much more developed in the polyglots, in the multilingual speakers. And this enabled them to progress much more quickly in their acquisition of a completely new language, even though the structure of the language was completely different.
A photograph of a young lady undertaking a brainwave EEG. The more languages you learn the less effort is needed.
They’re simply better at noticing, at picking up the rules of grammar and they’re quicker at being able to apply them. And the MRI imaging showed different areas of the brain lighting up as they did this – different from the parts of the brain used by the bilingual people. So the message is – the more language learning you do, the more your brain adjusts and changes, to become better at language learning.
So the ability to learn a language is what we call ‘cumulative’, CUMULATIVE – that means ‘it builds and it builds and it builds’. The more experience you have at language learning, the more adapted your brain becomes to doing it quickly. So those polyglot people – they are not super-human! They’ve just exposed their brains to more language learning experience – and consequently their brains have become better and quicker and structured towards language learning.
Just before we move onto the second language learning idea in this podcast - if you would like to give your English language learning a real boost – and something which is incredibly good value for money, which costs much less than an English language course – buy one of our podcast bundles.
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Second idea on this podcast? Well, I know that many people listen to our podcasts every week – whether it’s on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or one of the many other platforms where you can access Adept English. By the way – don’t forget, if you want to help us out, if you want Adept English to continue and to grow, you can really help by giving us a star rating – or even better, you could write us a review - a review of Adept English – and practice your English at the same time!
But whatever platform you use to listen to Adept English, you are probably listening, rather than reading and listening. You are probably busy doing something else at the same time. You might be doing the shopping while listening to our podcasts, you might be driving in the car, or sitting on the bus. You might be going for a run. Personally, I do my language learning mostly when I’m driving the car. And what I find is that I listen to a podcast – French in my case – and I’ll understand a high percentage of it, particularly if I do what we all recommend – listen a number of times.
I’ll certainly ‘get the gist’ as we say – I’ll understand the main meaning. But what I find is - there are always a couple of phrases or some words, which even if I listen several times, I still don’t quite understand. And the temptation is, of course, to say ‘Ah, I’ve listened to that podcasts lots of times now – let’s have a new one today’. And that’s fine. But what I’m trying to do also – is that when I’ve spent a few days listening to a particular podcast, I then take the time to just have a quick look at the transcript which comes with it, the written words.
It’s easy to do – I can see the transcript on my phone – just as you can with Adept English. And doing this means that there’s more opportunity to learn those new words, those phrases that I didn’t quite understand, those pieces of vocabulary, which you didn’t get at the start. And often, just seeing them written down means ‘Ah. I know what that was saying, now!’. And it helps you remember it, especially when the spelling isn’t obvious. And sometimes with new words, you anchor them better in your head, if you see what they look like written down – especially when the spelling isn’t obvious.
So my advice – of course, continue to do most of your language learning through listening – but do stop and have a read of the transcript too – just to pick up those odd words that you didn’t understand in any particular podcast. It’s also good practice to listen again, once you’ve ironed out these few words that you didn’t get. And look out for those words, so that you can hear them and understand them the next time.
Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.