Physiological Differences Can Impact Language Learning

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Reviewed by Mary McLaughlin, Ma-TESOL; M.S. SpEd

Learning English can be difficult for students with just cultural barriers, but new information discovered in the last year by Swedish scientists suggests that for some language learners there may be physiological barriers between them and language learning.

The Swedish scientists used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the physiology of the brain in response to new languages. Military recruits were asked to study Arabic, Russian, or Dari extensively, while a control group was asked to study intensively anything but languages.

MRI’s after the study were able to see that the parts of the brain dedicated to processing languages had actually developed in size while the students who were not studying languages showed no perceptible change in their brain structure. They were also able to see that those who had more of an aptitude towards language learning experienced specific growth in the hippocampus and cerebral cortex, while other less apt learners showed growth in the motor region of the cerebral cortex.

It is important then, as a result, for teachers to understand that teaching is not always about rote memorization but also encouraging consistent long-term habits that can lead to physiological change in the brain. To see how this relates to learning English, Japanese English speakers make an interesting study. Japanese English speakers frequently have issues differentiating between the English “r” and “l”. Japanese does not distinguish between these two sounds, considering them to be a single phoneme or unit of sound.

When Japanese speakers hear a word containing either of these two sounds, MRI’s show that only a single area of the brain is activated. For English speakers there are unique regions of the brain dedicated to interpreting both sounds.

In response to this information, programs have been developed for Japanese English speakers that greatly exaggerate the difference between the sounds over the course of several long sessions. These programs have been successful at helping Japanese learners to distinguish between the two sounds.

In the future, it will be important for English educators to distinguish between issues of knowledge that can be solved with study and with issues related to unique physiological development in ESL students.