Last week-end I attended the Illinois TESOL Bilingual Education Convention (IBTE). There were lots of great ideas direct from the classroom and research. The most inspiring session I attended was Dr. Janet Zandina’s plenary How Language Learning Changes the Brain.
Here’s my take-away.
1. Fire to wire. Every time we learn something new our neurons fire, our dentrites (nerves) grow, and we create new neurological connections in our brains. (Isn’t that amazing?) The more often these neurons fire, the stronger their connections become. Eventually they become neural pathways and require little brain effort (think about learning to drive a car).
2. Use it or lose it. The brain is plastic in both directions. You can grow new neural pathways, but you can also lose them. If you don’t practice your new learning, those little dentrites get reabsorbed in the brain tissue.
3. Learning English requires effort. Every language has its own cognitive map. As our adult students learn English, they are pushing their brains into terra incognita. It requires effort, but with practice it becomes easier; strong neural pathways can carry the cognitive load.
4. Cyclical Learning. This science is not telling us to drill till we kill. Dr Zandina says in order for those neurons to strengthen they need to re-encounter the learning material in different ways. She tells us we need a rich variety of listening practice with variation in accents and lots of motor practice producing the language.
In the future I want to talk to my students about this process and see how it affects their attitude toward language learning. Perhaps this knowledge will carry them through those moments of mental exhaustion.