What Happens In Your Brain When You Learn A Second Language Ep 398

A graphic of a doctor holding model of brain in clinic, as we explain the science behind the Adept English way of learning to speak a English.

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A Conversation In English About Learning Language Through Listening

Well, it has been a busy start to 2021, we’ve received a lot of emails with lots of questions. In today's English listening practice lesson I thought I would respond to a question from Han in China, who asked why does listening and learning a new language like you learned your first language work? Why is it better than other approaches to learning to speak English, or any language, fluently?

Now there is no easy one line answer to this as there is a lot of research and science behind the answer. It’s tempting to say "well it just works!", I know I wouldn’t be happy with that answer. So in today’s podcast English lesson, which is a conversation in English you can just sit back and listen to, I’ve produced a whole podcast to help answer this relatively simple question.

It’s an interesting question, tho, isn’t it? "Why is this way of learning the English language better than another?", we rarely ask ourselves as we learn, is this the best way of learning? We just copy what the other students do and assume that the teacher knows best.

Sometimes, a more discerning student might look around and see the results of others leaning using a particular approach, and if we like what we see, then they accept that this way of learning works. But we can never be sure that we are using the most efficient learning approach, or that another approach might be more optimal for our particular learning needs. Often we don’t get a choice, for example, as a child we just get sent to a school, and we are told how to learn, without questioning the system.

But now you’re here, engaging with Adept English, and we will try our hardest to explain how our approach to learning to speak English works. We do this in this podcast, on our website we explain our learning system and of course we also explain why our approach works in the 7 rules of Adept English. You can also read what others who are learning this way have to say about the approach here.

Most Unusual Words:


Most common 3 word phrases:

Of The Brain4
You Want To3
The New Language3
Receptive Language Learning2

Listen To The Audio Lesson Now

The mp3 audio and pdf transcript for this lesson is now part of the Adept English back catalogue . You can still download and listen to this lesson as part of one of our podcast bundles.

Transcript: What Happens In Your Brain When You Learn A Second Language

Hi there and welcome to this latest podcast from Adept English.

Adept English is here to help you as ever, to learn English language. But I thought this might be a good time in today’s podcast to talk some more about how that works. To talk again about those mechanics of language learning – what you need to do to learn English language and become fluent – and what part Adept English can play in that.

I’m also responding to a question we had from Han by email. Han was asking about how our listen & learn method of learning English works. How to get away from translating and move towards being fluent, understanding and speaking English automatically? And of course, this is what most of you want to know also. So thankyou, Han for your question. I’m also going to include a bit of neuroscience, as I know many of you like that too!

Learning a language changes your brain

So there is evidence from neuroscience that learning a second language (or a third, or a fourth!) means changes in the brain. So the left half of the brain – the left hemisphere of the brain, is seen as the part which deals with speech and language, so this is of course the side which grows more connections when you learn a language. And in particular, there are areas of the brain which understand language and areas which are used when you speak.

So Wernicke’s area is associated with understanding and Broca’s area is associated with speaking. These are the areas of the brain which are rewiring, which are growing, when you listen to English language being spoken, like this. ‘Receptive’ language learning – that means coming from ‘input’, listening and reading. And ‘expressive’ language learning is when you speak or write – so that’s your ‘output’ in the new language.

So it’s called ‘receptive’ from the verb ‘to receive’ – you’re ‘receiving’ the new language through your ears or eyes. And ‘expressive’ from the verb ‘to express’ – so if you are ‘expressing yourself’, you’re speaking or writing.

There’s a lot going on when you’re ‘receiving’ language input. All of those little phonetic noises, the ‘t’ and the ‘c’, the ‘oo’ and the ‘ah’ sounds all have to be decoded into words. Then you have to recognise those words and their meaning and put them together in a sentence, so the whole sentence means something in your head! And then when you want to speak the process is reversed.

So you have an idea of what you want to say, you translate that into words in your head, and then those words need to be made into all the little sounds that your mouth and your voice have to make, the phonetics, so that you can speak the necessary words in the new language. So there’s a lot going on in there and it has to happen really quickly, in the moment! And automatically, as we say.


‘Receptive’ language learning and ‘expressive’ language learning

But these two processes – the receptive language learning and the expressive language learning aren’t entirely separate. There is new evidence that even when you’re listening to language being spoken, the areas of your brain which are about language expression – or speaking – are also being activated, as you listen.

For a long time, it was thought that Broca’s area was concerned only with speech, but we now know that this part of the brain is active when we’re listening too. So listening is benefiting your understanding and your speaking. Listening usually has the effect of making you want to repeat words and sentences.

And of course, as I’ve said previously, once your English language understanding is really good, you just need to find someone or somewhere to practice speaking English [with], to form a bridge between the understanding and speaking. So initially more of your time needs to be spent in understanding – in receptive language learning. And expressive language learning comes after.

‘Receptive’ language learning responds best to ‘immersion’

The University of Illinois in Chicago, has a language learning laboratory, where language learning is studied. One professor at this university, Kara Morgan-Short, uses electrophysiology – scanning techniques to look at what happens in the brain of language learners. And she did an experiment where half the people in the experiment learned language through explanation and rule learning – learning in the way that you do, when you first start a language from the beginning - and when you learn English grammar. And half the people in the experiment learned language instead by being ‘immersed’ or by full ‘immersion’.

The verb ‘to immerse’, I-M-M-E-R-S-E or the noun ‘immersion’, I-M-M-E-R-S-I-ON – means in this context, to hear only the language you’re learning, nothing else. So that’s lots of receptive learning. So in this experiment, half the people learned through grammar lessons and rules and half the people were immersed in the language.

They found that everyone learned, but those people who learned from immersion, had brain processes which were closer to native speakers of the language, so they were more fluent – and six months after the experiment, these people remembered what they’d learned, without any further input!

Adults do not have the time for full immersion

So immersive language experience is what we need, when we are adults learning a new language. This is because our brains are wired, are designed already to learn in this way. This is the way we learned our own language, when we were children. However, this isn’t all that we need as adults learning language. Our brains can still do this learning – but they can’t do it exactly as we learned as a child.

We don’t have the same amount of time, the same everyday, every hour, every minute, exclusive exposure to the language that children have, learning their first language. ‘Exposure’ means ‘being exposed to it’, experiencing it, hearing it – all the time. Most of us just cannot have that same level of exposure, the same level of experience of hearing the language all the time.

But Adept English is designed to get you as close as possible to that. We don’t often make videos – because video means you have to sit in front of your screen and watch. And this takes your time because you have to give it your whole attention. It needs your eyes as well as your ears. The beauty of Adept English being primarily audio, is that you spend more time working on your English, because we require only your ears, not your eyes. You don’t have to sit and watch, or be in a particular place.

You can be anywhere - you just have to be able to listen! So you can do your English language learning while you do other activities. And this means you can find time to do your English, to do hours of English language listening much more easily. This is more like immersive learning. And you have more hours of increasing the density of the neurons in Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas in your brain!

Don’t forget The Seven Rules of Adept English – it’ll help your neurons

Before I go further, just a reminder to sign up for our free course, the Seven Rules of Adept English. This course is where I explain our method, our rationale for learning English – and why it works better than traditional ways of learning language.

Boost Your Learning With Adept English

So if you want to find out more about immersive language learning – and other ways in which you can speed up your language learning, this course is really valuable. Go to our website at adeptenglish.com to find this course.

Adult learnings have learning strategies to make up for less plasticity

The other difference between adult and child language learners is that our brains, our older brains are not quite as plastic, our brains are not quite as able to learn and change as adults. Not quite – there’s an optimal period in a child’s life for language learning. But as adults, we can get close, it’s nearly the same.

So perhaps 75% of learning a second language as an adult happens through listening. But while we don’t have quite the plasticity in our brains that a baby or young child has, we do have other advantages. We’re experienced learners, we have cognitive learning strategies that we didn’t have as babies or young children.


A photograph of a teenage girl with hood on listening to a language on headphones. Young brains have more learning plasticity.

©️ Adept English 2021

We’ve all been to school, since we learned our first language. We’ve all learned how to learn – and we have our strategies, our techniques that we’ve acquired to help us to learn. So most of our learning a language as an adult comes from listening – but we can also top up by using our good study skills, what we’ve learned about learning.

So we can take short cuts, help ourselves. Sometimes it’s good to look at the written words as we listen. Occasionally, we use our adult intelligence to look words up for their meaning because we’ve been wondering ‘What does that word mean. I keep hearing it – and I don’t know and it’s holding me back?’. So looking up a word can unblock us – we go ‘Ahh – that makes sense! I can carry on with my listening, now I understand that word’.

Using a little of our capacity to learn form and structure, to support a lot of immersive language learning is the best combination for adult learners. So this is why we always give you a transcript, we always supply the written words – and why we also do Rule Six – the helping hand of Adept English. So for example, in last Monday’s podcast, I put together the idea that all the adjectives which end in ‘-able’ in English have something in common. And once you understand that, it’s a short cut and a large number of English adjectives are easier.

That’s not something a baby or a child will do – that’s using your adult learning capacity to advantage. And bit by bit, you build up your knowledge. A language is thousands and thousands of moving parts – so a lot of listening and a little bit of ‘taking a short cut’ to understand is what works best. #[And actually older children do receive this type of input too – in school!!]

Einstein said ‘Learning is experience. Everything else is just information’

Einstein said ‘Learning is experience. Everything else is just information’. So what we also aim to do in the podcast, is give you an experience, to link your language learning to. So although I do podcasts on what I call ‘the mechanics of language’ – like the ‘adjectives ending in -able’, I also do a lot of podcasts, where I share my thoughts, my experiences.

Where, although I don’t know you personally, I invite you in to my view of the world. I range wide in the topics I cover – you get to know about my garden, what I like to cook, my feelings, all about the pandemic in the UK, what’s amused me or something I noticed in the news or the world around me that I find strange or enlightening or funny. You share my experience and I get to paint pictures in your head.

Download The Podcast Audio & Transcript

So you then think your own thoughts, have your own responses to what I talk about. So you can build your English language understanding around your experience of listening. It’s got some experience to be associated with. You react, you feel and you think as you listen. So I’m really happy to be your teacher, with you, on your English language learning journey – it’s a privilege.

And hopefully I can give you learning experiences, thoughts and feelings that link to your English language and make it easier to remember and bring it alive. So you can learn English language online with Adept English to give you that immersive language learning experience and you don’t need to feel that you’re on your own while you do it.


Anyway, I hope that answers your question, Han. And provides some explanation of our method. Don’t forget to listen to this podcast a number of times, until you understand all the words.

Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.




The voice of Adeptenglish, loves English and wants to help people who want to speak English fluently.
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