You’re not stupid

I don’t think most people believe themselves to be stupid. So why is it then that we treat ourselves as if we were stupid when we are trying to learn a foreign language? We do that by seeking an explanation for every detail of the grammar, a translation for every word, as well as explanations of when and how to use those words.

In this post I talk about how the brain is a really good pattern-finding machine. It is perfectly able to learn a language without us having to spoon-feed everything to it in the form of grammar rules and translations.

A different way of learning

I started learning English during primary school, like many children in non-English-speaking countries do. However, I actually began to get good at it during college when I started reading a lot of websites in English. It was then when I realized that I was getting an intuitive feeling for what correct English is. A feeling for how to use different constructions and vocabulary. This happened even for grammar and sentence patterns that we had never learned in school.

Some years after that, while looking for resources to start learning Japanese, I found the really inspiring website All Japanese All The Time. There this crazy guy explained how he had become fluent in Japanese in 1.5 years without studying the grammar. I couldn’t help but feeling: “if this guy can do it I can do it too!”. Since that very day I embarked on an adventure that would lead me to fluency in Japanese. More importantly, it confirmed my suspicion that grammar can be and is better acquired naturally in context. This was further confirmed while I lived in Japan after I met a few foreign students who were Japanese majors. I realized that they tended to speak quite unnaturally and incorrectly, even though they had studied the language for 4 years.

This idea that we don’t need to study the grammar and the vocabulary flies in the face of traditional language education. How can it be true? Let me explain.

Neurons that fire together wire together

Grammar in the brain of a native speaker is not made of rules that the speaker consciously learned. Native speakers of a language are famous for being unable to explain why they say things the way they do. Bill VanPatten puts it much more clearly and eloquently than I ever could.

The same is true for words. There is a whole lot more to a word than the simple definition of that word in the dictionary. One has to know how to use it in a sentence, the level of politeness appropriate to that word, the different nuances in meaning, etc. This can’t possibly be done consciously for every word out of the thousands of words that need to be learned.

The brain does all of its learning associatively. This has probably happened to you at some point in your life, when two completely unrelated things in your life became connected to each other in your head and since then you can’t think of one without thinking of the other. In my case there’s a song that reminds me of a friend I had in high school who I really appreciated. Even now, every time I hear that song, I can’t help but think of that person.

This phenomenon is easily explained by the Hebbian theory, which, simply put, states that “neurons that fire together wire together“. The idea here is that a neuron that contributes to another neuron activating will have their connection to each other reinforced. That means that it becomes easier for that activation to happen again. This reinforcement happens gradually over many instances of both neurons activating.

For every different thing that you can see, hear, or think of, different regions of your brain light up. Each time you saw a puppy as a child and someone said the word “puppy”, the connection between the sound of the word and the concept of a puppy became stronger. Eventually, that connection became strong enough that just seeing or thinking of a puppy brought the word to mind immediately. So this network of neural connections is formed through input, and is also used when speaking the language.

This mechanism of language acquisition keeps working well into adulthood for learners of a second language. I was able to confirm this myself when I learned Japanese in my late twenties and Thai in my early thirties.

Wiring word usage

The Hebbian theory can explain how we acquire an intuition for the usage of words very elegantly. Certain brain regions will light up when the learner is aware of certain factors in the situation in which the word was used. That may include physical location, relationship between the speaker and the listener, mood and personality of the speaker, gender of the speaker and the listener, etc.

Every time a learner hears a particular word, connections are formed between the sound of the word and all the different factors that are present in that particular situation. The factors that are similar over many instances of hearing the word will be reinforced and form strong lasting connections. Factors that are different every time won’t.

For instance, our brain implicitly learns that a word like “ass“ may only be used in specific informal situations. It will form a strong connection between the word “ass“ and the neural structure that stores the feeling of informality. Our brain also learns that words like “head“ can be used at any level of formality, so it won’t form lasting connections to any level of formality.

The sum of all those brain structures that are connected to a particular word creates the feeling that a speaker has for a word. This mechanism turns the brain into a really good pattern-finding machine. The brain manages to find the nuances of a word and the situations in which a word should or should not be used. And it does that while safely ignoring factors that don’t affect a word’s usage.

When speaking, which words are activated, and used, will depend on the speaker’s self-image, their mood, who they are talking to, and other context cues. That way, the speaker can use language that’s appropriate to the situation without needing to consciously think about it.

Wiring the grammar

The pattern-finding machine also helps us learn the grammar. It does so by enabling our brain to automatically pick up on patterns in the usage of words.

A learner will repeatedly be exposed to certain words appearing attached to certain other words. After that being reinforced over many times, the different grammatical categories are subconsciously separated in our brain. Nouns are separated from verbs and adjectives. Countable and uncountable nouns are figured out, as well as transitive and intransitive verbs, and many other categories and distinctions. It even figures out the grammar that grammarians themselves haven’t been able to. The brain figures out these patterns as a way to reduce the amount of effort needed to acquire new words and store them.

Once the pattern has been figured out for countable plural nouns (like “chairs”, “houses” and “people”) our brain may only need one instance of the usage of a new word to figure out how to use it grammatically. For example, in the sentence “I found so many lice on my son’s hair!” the word many tells us that the word lice has to be a noun, has to be countable and has to be plural. By connecting the new word lice to the existing brain structure that represents a word’s “plural-ness”, the brain avoids having to figure out from zero how to use that particular word, saving time and storage space in our brain.

Wiring the phonetics

This pattern-finding capability is also fully at work when figuring out the phonetic system of a language.

“Sounds” (called phonemes) in a language are also more complex than they seem. For the same “sound”, actual pronunciation will be different for different people. Even the same person will pronounce some of the sounds differently according to their mood, the speed they’re talking at, and many other factors. Pronunciation can also change depending on the previous or next word, whether the sound is at the beginning / middle / end of a word, etc. Every single sound in a language has a range of actual pronunciations that are common and easily understood by native speakers.

And some of those pronunciations (called allophones) may be different enough from each other to be considered two different sounds in other languages! As an example, the Thai letter “ร” can sound like the strong “rr” in Spanish, as in the word “perro”, but it can also sound like the “l” letter. Even in the same word, in the same sentence, and by the same speaker! The only difference is how “properly” the speaker is trying to sound. So Thai speakers may prefer the “rr” sound over the “l” sound when in a formal situation or when trying to sound educated.

Fortunately, our brain is ready to figure it all out thanks to its neural connection mechanism. The system can be acquired by the learner without needing to be conscious of it. The only necessary thing for learning to happen is being exposed to enough different speakers in a wide enough range of situations.

When doing that, the learners form one neural structure for each of the “sounds” (phonemes). Different parts of that structure store information about how that sound should be pronounced depending on formality level, social class, mood, place in a word, etc.

What happens when the learner speaks is similar to what happens when choosing what words to use. The specific pronunciation of a sound that is used will depend on all the different context cues. The speaker will then naturally use pronunciation that’s appropriate to the situation without needing to consciously think about it.

Your brain is a perfect language-learning machine

As you may have noticed throughout this post, the only necessary thing for native-like language acquisition to happen is for the right combination of neurons to light up at the right time. That means listening to the language you want to learn, with enough understanding, while being aware of the context where it is being used. At no point is there any need to memorize vocabulary, learn grammar rules or translate words into the learner’s native language.

Doing any of those things can actually be a hurdle in developing a network of neural connections that resembles that of a native speaker.

For a native speaker, a word will be connected only to the common elements of meaning and context that were available in situations where that word was heard. But for a learner trying to use conscious learning strategies, words are going to create connections to other parts of their brain. That includes connections to areas of conscious thought and connections to their first language.

Connections to the conscious parts of our brain affect fluency and cause false assumptions about the usage of words and the grammar. Connections to one’s first language cause false assumptions about grammar and about the meaning of words. They cause also pronunciation and intonation that are hard to understand.

But…

These are some common misconceptions that often come up that I want to address.

  • As adults, we can’t learn the same way children do anymore: There is no doubt left for me about the falseness of this affirmation. After developing an intuitive feeling for the grammar as an adult in several foreign languages and seeing other people do the same, I can only conclude that we are not less capable than children.
  • As adults, we can learn faster than children by doing conscious study: We can use tricks to memorize vocabulary and grammar rules to build sentences even if the appropriate brain structures haven’t been developed. However, doing that is just a crutch that doesn’t work towards making us fluent. It may allow us to ask where the toilet is, but it won’t help us gain a native-like feeling for the pronunciation, the grammar and the full range of the meaning of words.
  • If nobody explains it to me, I’m afraid I’ll guess things wrong and learn the wrong meaning of words: This is a common misunderstanding that came up when I explained my ideas to a friend. What I’m arguing for here is not to try to guess the rules of the language and the meaning of words, but to understand that the process of forming those networks is totally unconscious, and that it doesn’t need any help on your part. Thinking about words and the grammar can only result in false assumptions and non-native-likeness.

Putting it in practice

When trying to become fluent in a foreign language, we should strive to light up the right areas in our brain. That way, the appropriate neural structures can form, and the language can develop naturally little by little.

We need to listen to a lot of the language, so that connections can be built between the sound and the meaning. Whatever we listen to should be easy enough that the meaning of new words and expressions is obvious from the context. The situation should be clear enough: Who the speakers are, their relationship, their mood, etc. Therefore, it’s much better to watch a sitcom than to listen to lyrics or poetry, which have no clear context and speakers. Ideally it should be clear native speech, so that we can start building the appropriate structures that will hold all the complexity of the sounds in the new language.

We want to light up our brain as often and as intensely as possible. We can light it up often by doing things that we enjoy doing in the new language. Doing only fun stuff we can make sure that we keep coming back to it often, and avoiding boring and unpleasant activities will help us avoid procrastination. By doing things that really interest us we can make sure that we’re paying attention most of the time. If we can make those really memorable experiences, they will leave a much deeper impression and help us learn even more.

Having authentic conversations with native speakers is naturally interesting, since you’re talking about real things that affect you. If you have those conversations with people you enjoy spending time with then you’re also making it pleasant and memorable.

However, while the structures in your brain for the grammar, sound, and basic vocabulary are developing, it is better to stay away from consciously thinking about the language. Conscious thinking is unavoidable when we try to speak above our ability. So until that point I recommend to do Crosstalk instead.

Summing it up

In this post I’ve explained my current theory on how both first and second languages are acquired. I’ve also explained that we need to stop treating our brains like they cannot do the job anymore, since by doing that we are only creating hurdles that hurt our natural learning process.

Please leave a comment! Objections, critiques, and your own experiences are really appreciated.

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