Language Learning and Its Impact on the Brain: Connecting Language Learning with the Mind through Content-Based Instruction

By Kennedy, Teresa J. | Foreign Language Annals, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Language Learning and Its Impact on the Brain: Connecting Language Learning with the Mind through Content-Based Instruction


Kennedy, Teresa J., Foreign Language Annals


Abstract:

Cognitive sciences are discovering many things that educators have always intuitively known about language learning. However, the important point is actively using this new information to improve both student learning and current teaching practices. The implications of neuroscience for educational reform regarding second language (L2) learning can clearly be seen in the following categories: brain structures and the corpus callosum; neuronal development and the parts of the brain dedicated to language; the Brain Plasticity Theory and Language Mapping; memory and the Information Processing Model; and of course, developing and utilizing a braincompatible language curriculum that is meaningfully integrated into the basic content areas covered in all grade levels PreK-12. This article describes a recent study designed to address relationships between the corpus callosum and bilingual capacity, and provides recommendations to language teachers regarding brain-based learning through content-based language teaching.

Key words: brain compatible, brain structures, content-based language learning, corpus callosum, neuroscience

Language: Relevant to all languages

Introduction

The 1990s marked the "Decade of the Brain," when researchers actively began to study and disseminate new information that could help us to understand how the brain functions. Since then, thousands of new discoveries continue to be reported on a daily basis, especially given the advancement of technology that allows researchers to look inside the brain, examine its physical structure, and monitor the constant activity taking place. Studying how the brain functions through the course of thinking and understanding can provide valuable insight into the learning process. Many researchers predict that the brain research findings highlighted today will eventually give rise to comprehensive changes in education, specifically guiding instructional practices followed in the classrooms of the future. Therefore, educationally speaking, the important next steps must be to apply new findings to the development of practical strategies and lesson plans that facilitate student learning in general, and more specifically, facilitate second language acquisition (SLA) for all students.

The human brain, a 3-pound mass of interwoven nerve cells that controls our activity, is one of the most magnificent-and mysterious-wonders of creation. The seat of human intelligence, interpreter of senses, and controller of movement, this incredible organ continues to intrigue scientists and layman alike. (Presidential Proclamation 6158, 1990)

Brain Structures and the Corpus Callosum

What is known about how the brain receives and processes information is quite complex. During the course of any given moment in time, sensory input travels through the brain by way of the thalamus on its way to the cerebral cortex. This sensory input is filtered by the brain stem and limbic system. It is affected, and sometimes altered, by its passage through the lower, limbic systems of the brain, totally in control of our physical and emotional needs. The limbic brain is made up of clumps of specialized cells rather than the modularities found in the cortex. The thalamus is especially important to second language (L2) learners, as is the amygdala, which controls the emotional response to learning the new language. Information that survives the passage described above, arrives at the frontal cerebral cortex, where information processing and learning begin to take place (see Figure 1). It is at this point that the brain attempts to understand and make sense of the information registered via the senses. Information deemed meaningful and/or relevant is then stored in different localizations or modularities found in the cerebral cortex.

The various parts of the brain communicate by way of neurochemicals. During the past 20 years, the chemical nature of nerve cell communication has been clarified significantly. …

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