Let’s Talk Thai: How the Brain Learns

How the Brain Learns

This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.

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Learning new languages…

When we learn new languages we develop new language centres in the brain. Some years ago this was graphically demonstrated in research by Karl Kim and colleagues at Cornell using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). They showed that second languages acquired in adulthood had a spatial separation (in the frontal lobe) of the new language centre, which was separate from the native language centre. For those interested, follow the link (pdf download) to the report with colour graphics: Distinct cortical areas associated with native and second languages.

The hippocampus…

Central to the memorising process is the hippocampus, a small sausage shaped part of the brain in the temporal lobes which receives the sensory inputs. Strictly, we should talk of hippocampi, since mammalian brains have two. The same applies to the structure we call the amygdala, which is involved in incorporating emotional inputs to memory. They are parts of what is called the limbic system, a term now sometimes criticised as being a simplistic model of what is occurring.

Much of what is known about the hippocampus has been gained by studying an American patient, Henry Molaison, whose hippocampus was removed to cure epilepsy, which left him unable to form new memories. It is a fascinating story and a film of his life is planned. The hippocampus has been the subject of much study and to find out more you may be interested in Googling the research of Ole Paulsen’s team at Oxford University and their ongoing research on memory specifically related to hippocampal function.

The hippocampus receives all the sensory inputs for memory formation, although the details of how it forms permanent memories are still not completely understood. Three well-known sensory inputs are the auditory, visual and kinesthetic memory pathways, that is, hearing, seeing and doing. The kinesthetic mechanism, sometimes blurred with somatosensory, is more than just Tiger Woods repeatedly swinging a golf club until his ‘muscle-memory’ results in a great shot time after time.

Multisensory inputs…

Hearing, seeing and doing can link to form strong memories as long as multisensory input is occurring. For the purpose of this simple summary we will ignore the olfactory input, however it should be remembered that odours can also link in to memories (for example some men will testify that a particular perfume reminds them of an old girlfriend).


Although we know that multisensory inputs during learning are taken by the hippocampus to form temporary memories of varying strengths, what we really need for our new language are more permanent memories of what we have learned. Permanent memories are laid down in the cerebral cortex and once again the hippocampus is involved, acting like a supervisor in charge of the memory filing system. Emotions at the time of learning are possibly linked in by the amygdala, so it is good if you inject feelings of enthusiasm, enjoyment and positivity while learning. Stress is definitely undesirable.

Nerve cells (neurons) pass short electrical signals (spikes) to each other via chemical messengers at connections called synapses. Australian scientist John Eccles was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1963 for this research. More recent research from Paulsen’s lab indicates that varying connection strengths between neurons in a network encode what we know as memories. Repetition of signals at connections in the network by practice (repetitive learning) strengthens the synapses thus reinforcing the memory. So let us have no more discussion about whether repetition is worthwhile or not. It is of enormous benefit, and that’s that. Furthermore, if your learn-Thai-in-a-day language course didn’t work, or the in-flight course was a complete waste of time, don’t blame yourself.

Age need not prevent learning…

There is a commonly-held belief that no new brain cells are generated in adulthood, giving a gradual reduction in the number of cells during a person’s life and consequent mental deterioration. This is now known to be untrue.

Not only can neurons make new connections with other neurons during our lives, but new neurons can be produced, from what we can be termed ‘cerebral stem cells’. The hippocampus is one of the areas active in generating new brain cells. Physical activity is one factor that promotes the formation of new cells, however mental activity is probably more important. So now we have extra motivation for learning a foreign language – the learning process may help prevent mental deterioration with age! Of course chess or Sudoku may be equally good at keeping the brain functioning, but they don’t have the same communication benefits as a new language. On the downside, stress decreases the number of new nerve cells produced, especially in the hippocampus, so keep control of stress levels.

It’s also interesting that certain chemicals can promote the production of new brain cells. Antidepressants such as Prozac work in this way, which probably explains why they take many days to have an effect. Another is the hormone prolactin, whose levels are elevated during pregnancy. Exercise and good nutrition are known to help brain function, but water is critical. Some say even a little dehydration results in impaired brain function.

Psychological factors affecting learning…

There is a huge amount of psychological ‘information’ related to learning. Much is a mixture of fact and opinion without clearly identifying which parts are supported by research. My preference is to rely on information from reputable research groups and eminent researchers, such as Chicago psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi (pronounced Meehai Chiksentmeehai).

He is very clear on one point: there needs to be a balance between what a person has to do and what he or she can do. The trouble here is that what we believe about ourselves and our capabilities has an overriding influence. In other words, what you can do is pretty much the same as what you think you can do. That’s been known for centuries. If the job looks too tough, then the student has a crisis of confidence. Obviously this can be problematic for someone trying to learn a language. Start each lesson with confidence, not trepidation. Do not doubt yourself.

If the course does not look insurmountable, then the student is more likely to finish it. A course too difficult is not only confidence-sapping, but also a source of anxiety and stress. If on the other hand it’s too easy, we get bored. Popular motivator Anthony Robbins says his research shows that many people who buy self-improvement courses do not complete them. Even if the uncompleted course is a load of rubbish, I am afraid people may still blame themselves for not persisting, when the blame should really be on the poorly designed and produced course.

Having fun with language learning…

Emotion plays an important part in forming memories. If you maintain your enthusiasm and make lessons fun you will remember more. Let’s Talk Thai recommends role-playing. Take the word or phrase you are learning and act out the situation where you could use it. Feel the word, don’t just say it. Furthermore don’t let self-consciousness stop you physically acting out the situation. Get your body moving.

Chinese English teacher Li Yang certainly gets students moving and shouting in his Crazy English classes. Confidence builds and emotions run high, and his classes have become hugely popular in China. There is also an interesting study by Zhang and Buranapatana in which Thai was taught to Vietnamese students, with humming, clapping and physical gestures during lessons. Not surprisingly they reported encouraging results. They called this a ‘somatically-enhanced approach’ to language teaching. Whatever you want to call it, try getting yourself really involved during the lessons.

Even relatively minor activity levels can help the memory. For example we prefer students to make their own flash cards rather than being supplied with pre-printed cards. This is not just to get further exposure to the visual stimulus of the words or phrases and their mental processing, but the very act of writing helps memorising. In a study that may surprise, University of Plymouth researchers found that even doodling while learning helps people remember details!

By Tony Wright
Coauthor, Let’s Talk Thai (letstalkthai.com.au offline)

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