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How Neuroscience Can Help You Learn Spanish

Updated: Jan 23, 2019

While it’s no secret that learning a foreign language is a challenging task, there are some common misconceptions which encourage people to believe that it is near impossible, due to their age, skills, previous experience with languages, etc.

Don’t let these false beliefs prevent you from experiencing the world of possibilities that opens up when you can speak a new language.

After all, they are just that - false, myths that we have believed to be true simply due to repetition over time.

Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience are proving that none of these common beliefs are actually true. For example, the myth of not being able to learn a foreign language due to older age has been scientifically proven to be wrong. Neuroscientists have discovered that brain plasticity (the brain’s ability to change and to create new connections) can increase with age, if the right stimulation is present. In addition, learning a new language is like exercise for your brain. With consistent application, the brain’s ability to learn new things will increase with time and this can even prevent certain degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

The primary reason why so many people have taken language lessons yet never reach a conversational level, is because the traditional teaching methods used actually create resistance and inhibit the brain’s natural learning processes. It’s like learning to swim in a river with a fast and powerful current, versus learning in a still pool. If you were to throw one person who doesn’t know how to swim into a powerful flowing river, and another into a pool, who would you bet on to keep their head above water?

The human brain is hardwired to be extremely sensitive to the emotional and social aspects of life. In fact, neuroscientists have discovered that when people feel emotional or social pain, the same areas of the brain get activated as when people feel physical pain: the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex.

In one study, these regions were activated when people experienced an experimental social rejection from peers. In another more real-life study, the same regions were activated when people who had recently broken up with romantic partners viewed pictures of the former partner.

Unfortunately traditional teaching methods do not address the emotional and social aspects of learning and in most cases, they promote situations that create negative emotions and social experiences (such as pressuring a student to stand up in front of the class and speak against their own will, or subjecting a student to complete a boring, mundane task), which cause pain, and therefore activate the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. When these parts of the brain are activated, just like when we feel physical pain, our brain goes into survival mode, in order to protect itself. It starts sending all of it’s blood, fluids and energy to our arms, legs, heart, etc., so that we can “fight or flight”, to get out of the dangerous situation. The problem is that this leaves the brain without the resources it needs to be able to learn new concepts.

Recent neuroscience discoveries like these have given birth to a new way of learning languages, refered to as Neurolanguage coaching.

Neurolanguage coaching helps the learner understand how to create a learning environment that facilitates the brain’s ability to form new connections. Unlike the traditional teacher-dominant style, a neurolanguage coach works together with the student to establish an action plan that matches the goals, interests and situation of each learner individually. The role of the coach is similar to the role of a personal trainer at a gym. The coach is there to guide you through the process and help you reach your goals by holding you accountable and keeping your motivation high. They take away the pain of figuring out what is needed to reach your specific goal. Instead, all you need to do is show up to the gym and follow the process that is designed to get you to your specific goals.

While having a coach can be a great way to ensure that you stay on track and reach your goals quickly and with ease, you can also apply some of the same strategies to your own, independent learning process.

To do this, you must create a learning plan that suits your own learning style and interests, in order to keep motivation high. This means finding materials that excite you and focusing on words and concepts that are relevant to you. Plan your learning sessions in regular intervals and at times where you tend to feel most energetic and motivated - this could be early in the morning for some people or just before bed, for others.

You need to take ownership and commit to achieving a specific goal, but also be careful to avoid putting too much pressure on yourself, or beating yourself up when you make a mistake.


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