“The left hemisphere is known as the language-learning part of the brain, but we found that it was the right hemisphere that determined the eventual success”
A new study, “Speech processing and plasticity in the right hemisphere predict variation in adult foreign language learning,” published in NeuroImage, focuses on the roles played by the brain’s left and right hemispheres in language acquisition. The findings could lead to instructional methods that potentially improve students’ success in learning a new language.
The brains of 24 students of were scanned before and after a month-long intensive Mandarin program. University of Delaware cognitive neuroscientist Zhenghan Qi was surprised by the results: “The left hemisphere is known as the language-learning part of the brain, but we found that it was the right hemisphere that determined the eventual success” in learning Mandarin.
“This was new,” she said. “For decades, everyone has focused on the left hemisphere, and the right hemisphere has been largely overlooked.” The left hemisphere is undoubtedly important in language learning, Qi said, noting that clinical research on individuals with speech disorders has indicated that the left side of the brain is in many ways the hub of language processing.
However, according to Qi, during the early stages of language acquisition before people begin processing vocabulary and grammar, they first have to identify its basic sounds or phonological elements. The right side of the brain is key to distinguishing “acoustic details” of sounds.
During the study, the participants were taught in a setting designed to replicate a college language class, although the usual semester was condensed into four weeks of instruction. Students attended class for three and a half hours a day, five days a week, completed homework assignments and took tests.
“Our research is the first to look at attainment and long-term retention of real-world language learned in a classroom setting, which is how most people learn a new language,” Qi said.
By scanning each participant’s brain with functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) at the beginning and end of the project, the scientists were able to see which part of the brain was most engaged while processing basic sound elements in Mandarin. To their surprise, they found that the right hemisphere in the most successful learners was most active in the early, sound-recognition stage, although, as expected, the left hemisphere showed a substantial increase of activation later in the learning process.
“It turns out that the right hemisphere is very important in processing foreign speech sounds at the beginning of learning,” Qi said. She added that the right hemisphere’s role then seems to diminish in those successful learners as they continue learning the language.
Additional research will investigate whether the findings apply to those learning other languages, not just Mandarin. The eventual goal is to explore whether someone can practice sound recognition early in the process of learning a new language to potentially improve their success.
We talk about language as a set of skills however, for some reason, we ignore the implications of that. Skill development is all about finding the basic foundational elements, working on them and then building on them one at a time. To put it another way, erecting a structure of a house which has no foundations makes no sense at all.
Working on the sounds of language is foundational..in terms of speaking. There is nothing more foundational. Why even try saying something without first mastering the unique sounds and clusters of sounds in that language. That is what I have done ever since I have been teaching (have taught 3 languages doing the same thing).
It means that when the learners start work on meaning, they don’t need to also struggle unduly with how they say it. That means they can put most of their attention on making sense of the language and putting together words that reflect their understanding.
Interesting to me are some students in a German class (college level) whose language level is quite high, speak German with an almost unbearable American-accented English. THAT interests me. Any thoughts?
I find Andrew Weiler’s comments, which are based on his experiences, to be very insightful. It does make perfect sense that similar to how we learn at an early age the basic sounds of our first language. Although many of my Spanish students could answer questions on an activity, most had difficulty with speaking. Maybe if more time were dedicated up front to listening and understanding the basic phonetics of the language, speaking might be less challenging. It’s worth looking into.
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