How does your Brain Learn a Language?

How does your Brain Learn a Language? post image
Japanese Learning Brain


How does our brain process language? Noam Chomsky, who most consider the father of modern linguistics once thought that there was a part of the brain specifically designed to acquire language. He reasoned that in order for a child to learn a language so quickly there had to be something in the brain assisting that process.

This theory has now given way to a theory of universal grammar. In this slightly modified language theory, it is believed that the brain is actually just pre-disposed to learning grammar. This theory, called Universal Grammar, is the general belief that all languages share a similar grammar structure.

For example, all languages have nouns, verbs, adverbs, and certain parts of speech. So, are these hard-wired in to the brain or due to some other factors? The debate continues about what is actually going on.

But the general idea was that there was a part of the human brain that was dedicated to language learning. However, recent studies have shown that this probably isn’t the case.

Distributed Language Learning

As it turns out, recent research is starting to show that it isn’t a specific spot in the brain that is being utilized, but several different spots. As Benjamin Bergon explains in his book, “Louder than Words”, words trigger images, sounds, and possibly other sensations in your head. For example, to your brain saying “I had a rough day.” and touching sand paper are somewhat similar activities.

So according to this new research, the part of the brain that handles language processing isn’t just one spot, but actually a complex distributed system of language processing. In other words, evolution hobbled together some spare parts in the brain and created language.

This, to me, makes a lot of sense because it is a lot easier to learn new words in context. When you are out and about interacting with the world and a word comes up that you haven’t seen before, it is often easier to remember and use correctly because you have an image and context to match it up with.

It is much harder for you to remember a list of words and their corresponding translations in your native language. Now, mnemonics and imagery can assist with this, but in an ideal world, it is good to learn in context, because that is how your brain works (in theory).

After all writing systems are an invention of the last 2000 years or so. And some of the first writing systems used pictures to convey meaning (like Egyptian hieroglyphics). These writing systems are useful for transferring information over great distances or points in time. And you do need to remember how they look, because that will greatly assist your reading.

But in order to communicate, you have to link those written words to images in your head, which is actually what is happening in your native language in theory. Sometimes these links are very roundabout because you learned the word as a translation of something in your native language. So when you see a printed word it gets changed into your native language then converted to the ‘mind image’ that is the internal language of your head.

What this Means to You

Is it time to throw out all those drill books and stop reading grammar rules? Well, not exactly, writing is a very convenient way to transfer information from one place to another. Just be aware that your brain is actually going through a conversion process every time you see the written word. You can aid that process by being more creative when you go to learn new words.

Some of my (English-learning) students scoff at doing gestures and acting out scenes in class, but this can be one of the most powerful ways to lock new vocabulary in. Of course learning in context is the best way, but sometimes you can’t, for whatever reason, get into the situation. Maybe you don’t live in Japan, maybe you want to practice how to get through a meeting, but you aren’t working at a Japanese company. There are multiple reasons.

The point is, even if you can’t get into the situations in the real world, imagining them can also get you a long way. So, don’t be afraid to go crazy with it.

Put it to Use

How do you ‘fake’ a context? Do you have any techniques that help you imagine words better? Let me know in the comments below.

Photo by _DJ_

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Ulrike Rettig August 12, 2013, 2:58 am

    It’s definitely better to learn language in context (rather than just learning lists of words or grammar rules); and our brains automatically create images and situations to go along with the words. When you communicate in a language, you are always using words in context, individual words on their own are meaningless. When you say, “fake a context” you probably mean “create a context” – it’s the only way to go when learning and using a language.

    • Clayton MacKnight August 14, 2013, 7:28 am

      Exactly, faking, creating, whatever you need to do, building up some kind of imagery along with what you are learning.

      Games for Language looks interesting by the way, any chance you’ll get Japanese soon?

Leave a Comment

JLPT Boot Camp - The Ultimate Study Guide to passing the Japanese Language Proficiency Test