Neuroscientific studies into language learning could produce a wealth of evidence to help teachers, writes Melanie Butler
Neuroscience loves language learning. And I am learning to love neuroscience. As my ageing brain struggles to deal with life in any of my languages, I find it such a comfort to know that multilingualism protects against dementia.
Knowing that all my four languages are constantly active makes me feel so much better when I inadvertently swear at my computer in French. Or I spend five minutes trying to decipher a tweet in Catalan before I realise it is in a language I have never actually learned.
Multilingualism rocks. Or so says Anne-Marie Connolly, the Dublin director of studies who does brain research, in an interview. Not content with wiring up bilinguals for her PhD now she’s got designs on her students. That’s what we need, more language teachers looking at the scientific evidence. Because the evidence is mounting up. And teachers need to understand it. On research news, we report scientific studies showing that bilinguals emit so-called ‘P600’ brainwaves earlier in the language learning process. But what is P600 and why do teachers need to design tasks that promote it?
And then we come to Clil, all too often sold as the one-stop solution to language learning. Are we ignoring the historical and cultural issues that can get in its way, as researchers from Bolzano tell us on our Young Learners Special? Should we take heed of the Canadian research which, as we see research news, shows that all too often children with special educational needs are underrepresented in bilingual programmes?
And how do we teach children who have learned to read in a transparent language such as Turkish or Spanish to adopt the more complex processes needed to read in English, the most opaque of all European tongues?
Science raises a lot of questions and slowly but surely the EFL profession is beginning to try and answer them. And give a word of thanks to Dr Jun Zhao from the University of Augusta for showing us that the differences between the academic language used by L1 and L2 undergraduates disappears with time.
Don’t ask yourself if Bell is right in saying preschool English is the answer. Ask only, how do we teach learners pouring into Chinese kindergartens so that they keep the language knowledge they acquire. Never forget the problem of language forgetting. I don’t.
There may be four languages rattling around in my brain now but there are two more that have disappeared. I acquired them both before the age of six, and like many who learnt ‘nursery languages’, I barely remember a word.
Earlier is not always better.