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)

26 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Thai: How the Brain Learns”

  1. Sean, the problem with Thai is that the words can’t always be made into images. The Thai alphabet can, and that’s how I learned it so quickly after failing for such a long and frustrating time.

  2. great article and good thread going on here.. Yes memory loss can definitely be reversed with proper diet, exercise and all the information presented here in this article as well as good memorization techniques. I used to have a bad memory, and over the years i’ve brought so many books and tapes..lol.. Yes there is a lot of techniques out there.. Being able to visualize and turn abstract things into images i think is the most important skill to learn. its far easier and faster to run through images in your mind, and repeat over a periods of a few days to make a permanent connection, then to keep read something hopeing it sticks. You have to have a picture in your mind.. A pic is worth a thousands words. I can learn 50 new words every four days(some people can do a whole lot more).. I just encode words into images that represent the word(red light -stop,turkey – thanks giving, etc..) .. use the Cicero method (items in rooms in my house) and place those 50 images ie make a connection between the Cicero item and the image representing the word.. take a mental journey around my house and recall the images, and then i attach another image representing pronunciation of the word in the foreign language(theirs techniques for that).. then i just keep taking mental journey whenever i get time during the next couple of days…then its sticks.. I can reuse same Cicero sequence again and again like a floppy disk

  3. Hi Mike. I’ve long been interested in the different memory methods, so thanks for stopping by. I have quite a few books on the subject, but so far I have not written a post dedicated to improving language learning with the memory methods available.

  4. Memory loss can be a result of many different reasons, but once there’s nothing medically wrong with you or your brain it can be reversed and even improved pretty easily. Learning a language is at the top of the list for maintaining your edge, and boosting brain power. Click my name/url for some memory tips, not spammy just offering a resource. Hope this helps.

  5. i learn very quickly but suffer from short term memory loss sometimes
    i think my brain get some kind of short circuit

  6. Talen, batty, butchered Thai… you and me both 🙂

    Pete, that’s my aim too. To get to know Thailand better via the language. I’ve learned a lot in the past year so I’m excited at the prospects of learning more.

    I wonder if someone who has already gone through the difficulties of learning Thai would agree to an interview on WLT. When I first started, I read interesting posts from a few of the old-timers (not old in age, just old in experience).

  7. Catherine, yes I’m pretty competitive, but less so these days. I have to overcome that first hurdle of thinking it’ll be impossible to make any substantial progress, and that means actually making a serious effort to memorise things from one day to the next. Without a doubt, having spent a lot of time abroad in countries where I understand pretty much everything that is being said, it’s the thing that bugs me most in Thailand. You can’t really get to know a country without being able to communicate in their language.

  8. Catherine, I’ve been batty for quite some time. I don’t know if I belong but I’m comin no matter what and hopefully after some time I won’t butcher the language as much.

    I know being there presents even more questions concerning the language but it provides the best learning ground being in the thick of it.

    Hopefully when I do make it there we can get together for lunch or dinner and I can impress you with my butchered Thai 😛

  9. Talen, I’m glad to hear that you are moving to Thailand soon(ish). Especially as you belong here. Having to wait must be driving you batty!

    Some of the taxi drivers in Bangkok speak Lao so I do know what you mean. I also know that I have to be careful when it comes to taxi drivers correcting my Thai.

    As for all those questions you have about learning Thai… once you are here full-time it does tend to get more complicated, but in a different way. When I have a question, sometimes I feel that I can’t get a straight answer out of the smallest of queries.

    And while Rikker is generous with his time (I trust him over all else), as an active academic his free time is limited so I try not to bug him too much. I have a draft email saved as we speak… 🙂

  10. It sure seems that I have a sausage shaped something in my brain sometimes…accounts for a lot too.

    Sitting at home in America alone working from books, podcasts, and sites like your wonderful site Catherine, sometimes …most times…leaves my head like a bowl of jello. As soon as I learn something new more questions arise and more work to uncover what is needed.

    I find I learn much better and faster in a Thai environment. Unfortunately the majority of Thai environments I find myself in are in Issan so that means I’m learning some Thai and some Lao and I’m never sure which!

    Within the next year or so I’ll be moving to Thailand and then I will definitely be going to private lessons

  11. Welcome to WLT Gene! His language learning challenge is impressive. And I imagine that studying Thai around 65-70 years must have been tough, but rewarding. I’ll have to keep him mind whenever I grumble about my own memory. I’ve tried many angles… Which reminds me… There is a vitamin/mineral combination that often works for me. While it is noticeable, it is not a huge improvement. I’m happy with noticeable!

  12. (First post, this is a great blog). While I was staying at a guest house in Chiang Mai a few years ago, I met a 65-70 year old man who was preparing for the Thai government language exam. His age was clearly not preventing him from attaining his goal. He was maybe 3 months away from his exam date and I have no doubt that he passed. He inspires me now whenever I’m struggling with Thai. I’m less than half that mans age so I have no right to give up…at least that’s how I look at it.


  13. Pete, taking lessons with your son sounds like fun! Is he competitive? Are you?

    My son and I took French lessons at the same time and he did inject a bit of competition into it. He was in an International school while I took semi-private lessons.

    I do have a competitive nature for some things, but it does not come into it when learning Thai. For Thai, my drive is not to compete, but to procrastinate instead.

    Next month I’m going to call my own bluff. I’m signing up for an outside course. I’m moving out of my safety zone…

  14. Before we chose to stock Let’s Talk Thai we received a copy to assess and were very impressed. I agree with many of Tony’s arguments and have spent a lot of time over the years learning about learning. I can say that the customers that have purchased Let’s Talk Thai are happy with their choice.

  15. Catherine, still haven’t decided 100% on the best approach, private or group lessons. I’m thinking of using my 14 yr old son who’s there for 2 months as incentive – if we do lessons together, he’ll show me up so much I’ll have to make a real effort to concentrate. The teacher will be asking “are you sure he’s your son?” 😀

  16. Martyn, when I’m tired, Thai comes across me as Flobberpop too. And sometimes not.

    Like you, I am interested in getting this ‘ole brain to perform better and at times I despair. In my search, I’ve read many books on increasing memory power, some quite good actually.

    But, I think learning Thai is like everything else in life – slow but sure gets you there. Sure, there will be language learning mavericks who say, ‘what, you aren’t fluent in Thai YET?’ But we all learn at our own speed and in our own ways. No matter how they got there, I know that if I stick to studying Thai one to two hours a day, I’ll eventually get there. Bad memory or no.

    Pete, I also became frustrated with Bush shutting down stem cell research. It was an insane decision, in line with all the rest of the craziness from his time in office.

    Hey, I’m looking forward to you being here in Thailand, even if it is way up in the smoky north! And I’m especially interested in how you get along with learning Thai. I start in on a new program next month… fingers crossed.

  17. No problem at all Tony, it’s just something about which most people have little knowledge, ie that the brain does not heal like a broken limb. If Thais were made to spend a month in the physio department of a neurological hospital filled with brain-injured patients, I guarantee that we would see a huge increase in the number of motorcyclists wearing helmets!

    Thanks for the link, it’s still a long way off, but there’s hope not only for people with brain trauma, but also Alzheimers and Parkinsons.

    Anyway this is drifting off topic. As I’ve mentioned to Catherine before, I’m all for somatically-enhanced language learning, liberally laced with fun, enthusiasm and much enjoyment, and I shall get down to it as soon as I step off the plane next week in Chiang Mai 🙂

  18. I’ve just returned from a half shift of overtime and a good few beers. Your site is the first I’ve dropped into. This is the second time I’ve read this post and this time it’s become slightly more clearer. A little background……I’m a simple council estate boy from rural Wiltshire and big words confuse me. However you’ve helped me enormously in my quest to find the answer to my lost youth.

    After years of alcohol abuse ala excessive drinking, over which time no woman has yet to calm my inner soul, I have found that my sausage has shrivelled and has an inability to react to the charms of the most angelic female Thai voice.

    “Central to the memorising process is the hippocampus, a small sausage shaped ……”…..My ability to learn a second language has been destroyed by alcohol abuse, you would be right in saying I have “two’ers droop.”

    Catherine a first class post that goes a long way to encouraging and discouraging someone to learn a second language. It will be a great help to the young bright thing but as for me….my banger’s mashed and I’ll give up all hope.

    As someone commented to me yesterday “Flobberpop,” my chipolata can handle that.

  19. Thank you for the comments Pete. I sense my words on neuron production slightly upset you and if so I am truly sorry and I apologise. The effects of cerebral trauma did not enter my mind when writing those words, but I well appreciate the situation. I was only thinking about language learning. Nevertheless, you will be interested to know that there could be some extraordinary breakthroughs soon, thanks to wonderful research by dedicated people around the world.

    In the article I was actually struggling to make the point that brain cell genesis is a fact, so people should not give up. No longer should we say: “I’m over forty (or fifty, or sixty etc), so it’s too late to learn a language. We can enjoy mental tasks into old age if we keep the brain in shape. You see, that’s our problem: although it is not hard to keep in shape, it is even easier not to.

    What I did not say in the article is that although new cells are produced, they can also die before ‘plugging in’ to the system. They need stimulation to survive, they need a job to do, and the stimulation comes from the environment. From the brain’s point of view, the environment means sensory input.

    The brain adapts to its environment. Progressive institutions for older people are introducing a variety of programs. Right-handed people are encouraged to learn brushing the teeth with the left hand. (New connections mean a better neural network.) Labradors may wander the corridors, offering the opportunity to fondle, cuddle and give and receive love. (Some say pets make you smarter, and who can disagree?) Learn chess, learn music, learn a language, it is all good positive stuff!

  20. One serious point on Tony’s interesting article. I’m not actually taking issue with his argument, just questioning the emphasis on the brain’s capacity for repair/maintenance. Any such ability is very limited indeed, as those who have direct experience of caring for thee brain-injured are only too aware. Indeed once a mental or physical incapacity has been incurred (especially in adulthood) it is pretty much ‘for life’, and when two or three years have elapsed after a brain trauma, you know pretty much what the patient is left with. There is some limited ability of other parts of the brain to take over impaired functions (mostly occurring during the 2/3 years I referred to), but there is no significant brain cell replacement going on. I’m no neurologist, but I have watched this process at first hand for a number of years. (One reason why I am frustrated with those who campaigned against stem cell research, by the way).

    Fascinating article Tony.

  21. John, There is an English podcast course that teaches along a similar vein: Effortless English. The guy (Aj) is pretty intense but if you can get past that, his methods are interesting.

    Aj was out here in Bangkok six months ago, giving seminars. He announced his aim to create a Thai course modeled after his English course, but then nothing seems to have come of it. And as he does not answer emails…


    Pete, you always make me laugh so from now on, I’ll reread your comments in my mornings, always!

    I started playing Contract Bridge around 20 years ago in order to have a hobby that would keep my brain active once I started getting older. Since then, I’ve bounced between playing bridge 4 times a week (once flying to Australia for their international competition, Gnot) to nothing at all.

    Living in Bangkok has not been conducive to playing Bridge because I’m 1) gone too much and 2) I belong to a Sunday bridge group which only gives me one shot a week and if I miss that, then, there you go.

    Prozac nudges your brain to create new brain cells? Nice. And might be easier than trying to arrange to play Bridge on Sundays 🙂

    Btw, the Vietnamese report mentioned in the article (Somatically-Enhanced Approach to learning Thai) can be downloaded here: http://www.sleid.cqu.edu.au/include/getdoc.php?id=735&article=186&mode=pdf

    And now that my pot of tea is ready, I’m off to check out John’s site – thaiexpat.info, as well as read Pete’s article about Thailand’s declining tourism.

  22. As my small sausage (the brain-located one as opposed to the bratwurst) is currently full of spam, I shall have another go at reading this post after a good night’s sleep 😉

    I shall unfortunately probably end up dreaming about camp hippos now.

  23. i would agree fully in being engaged at what your trying to learn will improve your chances of retaining that knowledge


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