Our brains are more plastic and more malleable than we think. They develop and grow when we learn a new language, just like our muscles after regular gym workouts.
And, it’s not just because I said so. I have found two encouraging studies that were conducted in 2012 and 2014 that suggest that learning a new language makes your brain grow, even if you are already 84 years old. What’s even more interesting is that the language learner’s individual performance influences these functional and structural changes to a certain degree. Thus, the brain’s efficiency in learning a new language depends on the student and the effort he/she puts into succeeding.
While I was reading about these brain training studies, I was reminded about when I was learning my second language. I faced the problem of retaining new words and I remember its effect on my grades and motivation to continue. Then, I compared it with jogging and the unbearable pain I felt in my knees upon reaching my fifth kilometer. I realized that I was simply experiencing a similar feeling of adjustment due to the difficult strain of learning.
When we are exercising, such pain causes us to feel our physical results. However, when we are learning, we cannot feel such changes so easily. In fact, in order to visualize the physical changes to the human brain in the studies mentioned above, Swiss researchers at Lund University and American researchers at Penn State University had to use MRIs and electrophysiology tools. The results of their tests showed that the brains of foreign language learners actually grow in their hippocampus area, which would be in the grey and white matter areas. This confirmed that our brains are actually shaped by learning a new language, just like our bodies with physical exercise!
However, these aren’t the only benefits: in a 2013 study, the American Academy of Neurology found evidence that learning a foreign language could also help people fighting against aging and postpone the development of Alzheimer’s and dementia by four or five years!
At this point, I should confess that in addition to working as a freelance blogger, I also teach English as a second language to children and adults. I have an effective tutoring methodology and a unique approach to every learner. Hence, I consider myself competent in this issue and I’m eager to share my teaching secrets with you! Let’s have a look at them.
Do not be too passive!
This is an essential trick when trying to turn your passive knowledge into active knowledge. Of course, it’s very difficult to develop both receptive (listening and reading) and active (speaking and writing) skills without your teacher’s help.
Working as a tutor, I have observed with great interest how different ESL students struggled to turn their passive knowledge into active knowledge. Some learners start from the receptive stage and move gradually to more active language. They may, for example, read and translate lyrics before speaking about a song’s main theme, and only then do they feel comfortable enough to write a comment about it on YouTube.
There are also learners who move to the productive stage immediately without making significant mistakes with new words. After observing these tendencies, I found that there are three methods that really help students become more fluent.
- Focus on one language learning activity at a time, but involve yourself with others. If you spend your evenings only listening to news and audio books without integrating writing, reading and speaking into the process, you will find it hard to speak spontaneously with a native speaker. That is why once you have finished reading, you should watch the news or a sitcom, attempt to grasp the key message, and then write about it as if you were a reporter or a movie critic, agreeing or disagreeing with the main points.
- Next time you are in class, let your teacher know that you have done some writing on your own. Remember, it’s crucial for a learner to be checked and heard by native speakers. So, just ask your teacher or classmate what he thinks about the news or a particular film and then give your own opinions. You should also make an effort to use different adjectives to describe your feelings each time your talk about them. Even if this comes across as showing off and you are not that kind of person, just think of it as a rewarding initiative to help you achieve better results faster.
- Form your own opinions about events or ideas. When I was mastering my target language, I couldn’t understand why my teacher would ask me to share my own thoughts with the whole class. “What do you think about…? And why?” It always made me embarrassed and I began stuttering. There were times when I hated that “Why?” because sometimes it’s just difficult to explain why you like toast with cheese and not jam in the morning. However, you can get used to discussing your opinions by expressing yourself through quotes that you’ve read or by writing about your weekend to native speakers in an online chat. Such productive activities will help train your ability to decode and reproduce information in your target language.
If you begin to feel frustrated with all this active learning, encourage yourself by thinking back to the results of those MRI studies: “So, if I write more in this language, my brain will grow and I will live even longer!”
No rest days: keep your mind in the game!
I have found that people often say that they lack the time, money and talent for learning a new language. However, in my work with with students, I have noticed that many simply lose their desire to learn a language once it doesn’t feel new and exciting anymore.
This is why learners need to devote every free hour of the day to various learning activities, such as reading the news, listening to music, talking with native speakers, writing in their diary and watching TV series in their target language.
Doing at least two or three receptive and productive activities every day will help to form good learning habits and make the studying process easier. It’s crucial to make a habit of learning English; do not take days off from training your brain, because it influences your level of performance and diligence.
Use creative learning techniques
Your own mind and imagination can create the best environment for learning a new language effectively. Thus, I usually recommend that my students use the learning techniques below:
- Let your creativity help you work towards your speaking goal. For example, you could think about the five things that you would buy if someone gave you $200, and practice explaining why you’ve chosen them. Or, you could describe what you would do right now if you were a bartender. If you are a beginner and this is too difficult for you, try naming objects around you by pointing at them and saying (for example), “This is my lamp, I bought it at a flea market.” You could also try using short action phrases the next time you decide to clean your room. For instance: “I am dusting my windowsill now, and I can see five flowerpots and my lost earring…”
- Use online language learning tools such as duolingo to get access to free courses. You can also use ankisrs to learn new words, being that it offers interactive flashcards, as well as audio and video to help you control the learning process. To enhance your writing skills, use studentshare, a database of excellent writing examples from native speakers. And, finally, to learn how to speak without a fear, use the wespeak tool to practice with natives.
- Only watch movies, series and videos in your target language. Do not turn on the subtitles, even if you only understand 5% of the dialogue. Some might disagree with this method. However, I have noticed that subtitles weaken the student’s listening comprehension and make them rather dependent on seeing the words. Once, I had a student who was so desperate to find subtitles for a movie that he wasted two hours searching for them instead of just watching it. For those who are beginners, I recommend starting with series and films you’ve already seen or twenty minute sitcoms like Friends.
Visualize and talk to yourself
The principal of visualization is used in most language learning software products like Rosetta Stone. I still remember entire Spanish phrases from these products. However, if you can’t afford to buy a licensed program, you can easily use your imagination… and that’s free!
For instance, you can try picturing yourself as a guest star on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Then, use another helpful trick to train your brain and develop communication skills: talk to yourself.
Sounds crazy? Not when it comes to language learning! It helps because you can actually imagine yourself in a room with the famous American presenter as she asks you about your childhood or your attitude on global warming. It doesn’t matter what questions she asks; it can be anything that comes to mind. You don’t even have to say Oprah’s part of the dialogue because it’s your answers that matter most. These methods helped me a great deal when my budget was too limited to buy special apps and courses.
To do this, talk to yourself aloud to get used to your pronunciation and thought process. Soon, you will notice that your target language is interrupting your normal inner monologue. I feel that this is the most efficient method to start thinking in your chosen foreign language because we chat with ourselves more often than with any other person!
The brain-training tricks mentioned in this article will only work if you always push forward and do not give up on yourself. It’s quite normal for our brains to quickly become tired and lazy. However, this can lead to self-indulgence and procrastination when it comes to the four necessary communication activities: reading, speaking, listening and writing.
By using only some of these activities, such as reading or listening to radio shows, you’ll only develop receptive or passive communication skills. To achieve good results quickly, you’ll have to include all of them in your daily active learning. Only then can your brain work at its full capacity.