Learning A Second Language

How could a neuroscience tragic and a European languages obsessive get to attend a better series of public lectures at The University of the Sunshine Coast than those taking place throughout May & June on language and the brain?

Dr Michael Nagel recently spoke about cutting edge research that tells us how the brain develops, how we learn, how we learn to talk, what keeps the brain active as we face cognitive decline (from around the age of 30) and some of the misconceptions around learning and behaviour that, coincidentally, many providers of human development services still cling to.

What we know

  • The brain is geared to survive, then to learn
  • The brain begins to form around 17 days after conception
  • At age 3 or 4, the brain switches from “what” to “why” (hence all those questions)
  • The brain continues to develop until around age 18 or 19 with a bit of fine-tuning for the next few years
  • The brain develops the most between the ages of 12 & 18 (that explains a lot)
  • The frontal lobes (‘executive’ brain functions reside here) are the last to develop – the brain matures from the back to the front
  • The prefrontal cortex is responsible for activities such as anticipation, learning from mistakes, concentration, empathy, sequencing, judging, inhibiting emotions and more – the adolescent brain isn’t there yet (also explains a lot)
  • What you do in your teenage years will solidify your hard wires
  • The brain functions optimally when we’re active, eat well and drink lots of water
  • The brain responds positively to encouragement, recognition, social connection, certainty, fairness, feelings of empowerment and choice
  • You can change your brain by thinking about doing something
  • The impact of technology on the brain is not yet known.

Where there is no supporting evidence

  • We only use 10 % of our brain (the brain is on 24/7 and all regions are frequently being used)
  • Playing Mozart to a child before birth will improve their mathematical ability
  • Some people are right-brained dominant and others are left-brained dominant
  • Some of us are visual learners while others are auditory or kinaesthetic learners
  • We can boost a child’s brain power with brain-friendly toys and early enrichment programs – studies in the USA have identified an increase in levels of stress hormones in young children due to too much, too soon
  • By the age of 3, everything important in relation to brain development has been determined
  • Exposing a toddler to language DVDs boosts vocabulary
  • Learning a second language slows a child’s overall development because it confuses the brain
  • Learning a second language is useful only if both languages are spoken each day.

Dr Nagel tells us that learning to talk is the product of active, repetitive and complex learning; that there is no genetic code that leads a child to speak English, French, Japanese or any other language.  Language is learned. “We are born with the capacity to make 40 sounds and our genetics allows our brain to make associations between sounds and objects, actions, or ideas. The combination of these capabilities allows the creation of language”, said Dr Nagel. Amazing!

What we know about language development

Courtesy Dr Nagel and Dr Peter Grainger of USC, research into learning a second language shows that it:

  • enhances cognitive skills
  • improves attentional control
  • enhances abstract thinking and working memory
  • strengthens mental flexibility
  • improves ‘executive’ brain function such as task switching and inhibiting emotional responses.

Learning a second language is not just for children. There are huge advantages for adults who learn a second language, especially so for the ageing brain:

  • Adults can consciously use the strategies they know that work for them, to aid their learning
  • Adults have knowledge from their first language to draw on
  • Adults have greater control over how much they put into their learning
  • Bilingual brains have more grey matter (which consists of neurons that have a function in creating ‘intelligence’ and higher-order cognitive processes)
  • Research indicates that bilingual older adults have greater cognitive reserves and a ’protective mechanism that increases the brain’s ability to cope with pathology’ (the causes and effects of disease) – Grant et al, 2014, Frontiers in Psychology, 5,1401
  • Being bilingual appears to help ward off cognitive decline by four to five years in adults.

The Conclusion

The science has implications for parents and teachers; for the workplace (for workers, business owners and leaders); it has significant implications for the ageing brain.

We’re not paying enough attention to it – is it because what we don’t know a lot about or fully understand, we tend to ignore for as long as we can? In time, the science will be mainstream, positively impacting parenting, schooling, work and ageing in a way that has never before been felt or seen.

In the meantime, it saddens me to see many human development service providers continuing to ignore neuroscience or manipulate it to claim outcomes that can’t be supported by any evidence. Such is the need for some of us to constantly acquire, consume or possess more of something than is actually necessary or justifiable, in a way that is disingenuous. Let’s face it, we are tribal by design – the instinct to take from other tribes to feed our own is hard-wired in. The problem is, life can become a crusade to acquire as much of something as possible, often to the detriment of those we serve.

The brain is a muscle, not an organ – we need to train it like a muscle:

  • Limit technology
  • Talk
  • Exercise mind and body
  • Ensure you have downtime
  • Interact socially, face-to-face
  • Explore the natural world
  • Get the right amount of sleep

“Brain development is more marathon than sprint” says Dr Nagel. The high intensity, shorter sprint does not build the endurance and stamina needed for the marathon.


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