If you have no idea what this title means, you're in the right place and this article is made for you.
Here's a (very) brief and (very) simplified overview of the brain and a quick zoom on the parts of the brain that are most interesting in language learning (and speaking!) situations.
The more aware you are of how your brain reacts to situations, the better you can “hack” it to:
learn better (and possibly faster) ,
manage and rationalize stressful situations (when you have to speak the language and things don't go the way you wish or imagine).
The brain is made up of 3 parts:
the cerebrum (learning, memory, interpretation, personality)
the cerebellum (movement, balance, coordination)
the medulla oblongata (breathing and blood pressure)
The cerebrum is made up of 2 hemispheres, each made up of 4 parts
the frontal lobe
the temporal lobe
the parietal lobe
the occipital lobe
Zooming into our brain, let's take a quick look at the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC).
The PFC is one of the last brain regions to mature (the brain may be done growing in size, but it does not finish developing and maturing until the mid- to late 20s) ! Critically important role in executive functions:
It is responsible for cognitive functions such as attention, working memory, and decision-making.
“One general model of PFC function is that it receives sensory information about the external world, uses that information to plan responses, and then communicates with other areas of the brain to enact a response” (from the 2-Minute Neuroscience: Prefrontal Cortex youtube video).
Your prefrontal cortex is your thinking, reasoning, rationalizing brain. This is the part of your brain you need to dig into when you start panicking or stressing out about having to speak in a foreign language during a meeting or a presentation.
Another part of our brain is the temporal lobe and deep inside the temporal lobe lies the limbic system.
While scientists don't agree on all the structures that make up the limbic system, the 2 following are agreed on (1 of each in each of the 2 lobes):
response to threats (fight or flight)
Hippocampus associated with
memory centers of our brains.
emotions of the event we memorize
learning and emotions
neurogenesis – new nerve cells are made here from adult stem cells.
The limbic system is not a unique structure, but rather a collection of structures involved in:
processing and regulating emotions
memory formation and storage, learning, desire
the body’s response to stress
Our mind and body will react in the same way whether the threat is real or whether it's only a perceived threat (not real). Our mind will "go limbic"!
A stressful situation can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that in turn produce a series of involuntary physiological changes such as
increased heart rate
With these physiological changes, our body is now ready to react :
fight : taking action when faced with imminent danger
flight: escaping the danger
freeze : becoming totally immobile
This the part of your brain that gets you away from danger. But is speaking a foreign language really danger? Breathe deeply a few times, reason with yourself. Now your prefrontal cortex is back in the game. You can talk. Nothing bad is going to happen. Everything is going to be ok.
I'd like to tell you two more things about the brain that are really good to know when it comes to Language Learning.
The first one is Neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s capacity to grow and evolve in response to life experiences.
Our brain has the ability to form or reorganize synaptic connections and it does so all the time (especially in response to learning or experience).
Parts of your brain, like the hippocampus, form new neurons (neurogenesis). Other parts of your brain make new connections between brain cells.
As we age, we have less brain cells neurons) but the neurons we do have still have the ability to form new connections. That means you can no longer say “I can't learn at my age”, that's absolutely not true.
And the amazing news is that you can work on improving your brain plasticity. LEARNING A LANGUAGE IS AMONG THE MOST RECOMMENDED (AND PROVEN) WAYS OF IMPROVING YOUR BRAIN PLASTICITY.
There's no age limit to learning.
Emotions, fear, anxiety, memory, learning, planning, controlling, brain plasticity…see where I'm going with that? Not being able to find the right word in a foreign language when we want to order something in a restaurant is not a real threat. Objectively speaking, there's no danger whatsoever and yet, the level of stress it can cause is perceived as such by our brain. Our body goes in full fight/flight/freeze mode. You know the mode where we can't even say the most basic words anymore. The mode where we just give up and ask our friends to order for us or just point at the menu. That mode. This typically happens during business meetings too. Perfectly rational people with a very acceptable level of English (their non-native language) will say to me "I can't find the right word; I can't talk during a meeting as I do when I'm with you'. You lose confidence, feel dumb and feel threatened. If someone calls on you during the meeting, you feel like a deer in headlights: fight? flight? freeze? While this all happens in a split second, you can do something about it. First and foremost, you can breathe deeply and then, tell your brain who's boss :-D. You can consciously engage your prefrontal cortex and reason yourself out of the feeling of panic. Yes, easier said than done, I know.
By understanding how the brain processes information, regulates emotions, and creates habits, you can develop new ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that support your learning goals, helps you stay calm and boosts your confidence.
As a language coach who truly believes in brain-based coaching, I educate myself about the brain all the time and while this all seems a little too good to be true, it is. The brain is a highly dynamic and adaptable organ that changes throughout your life.
Neuroscience-based coaching can be very efficient in dismantling self-limiting beliefs, doubts, anxieties, perspectives, and biases to form positive habits, thoughts, perspectives, and actions.
If you need some help getting started on your language goals and overcoming your fears, coaching can be incredibly beneficial. While some of you may require ongoing coaching for an extended period, others may find that just a few sessions are enough to set them on the right track. Regardless of the duration of coaching, the guidance, support and accountability provided can help you develop the necessary skills, mindset, and strategies to overcome obstacles and achieve your goals.