In our lives, everything changes. Some things change slowly, like the gradual change from hot weather in the summer to cold weather in the winter. Other things change more quickly, like the seconds on a clock. At times, the change can be very sudden: like the way we all changed our lifestyle during the COVID19 pandemic—almost overnight we changed from one way of living to another. Studying the way our brains adapt to change can tell us a lot about how to approach studying a new language.
Do our brains change?
People used to think that our brain does not change at all after we become adults. They thought that the difference between a young adult’s brain and that of an older adult was only what was inside the brain: thoughts, ideas, attitudes, etc. As neuroscientists examined the brain in more detail, however, they came to understand that the brain is always changing. It adapts to help your body survive as your environment, or your body itself, changes. One of the most famous examples of this is a study of taxi drivers in London. To become a taxi driver in London, you need to pass a very difficult test about knowing all the places in London and the best way to get from each place to another. Scientists who compared the brains of London taxi drivers with those of people who had not studied for the test found that one part of the taxi drivers’ brains (the hippocampus) was different in the taxi drivers. Studying had actually changed the taxi drivers’ brains.
How does learning a language change our brains?
Studying a language also changes our brains. In fact, the first language you learn, is very important in helping your brain to understand how ideas are connected to each other. For example, if your first language is English, you will learn to connect the word “dog” with the animal that has a tail and says “Woof.” English speakers also learn that there is a connection between “up” and “good.” When we say, in English, “My mood is up” or “I’m feeling high,” we mean that we feel good. On the other hand, if we are “down,” it means are mood is not good. Some other languages do not connect “up” with “good.”
When we learn another language, we have to make new connections in our brains. As you know, learning a language is not easy and it takes some time. Maybe it will help you to be patient if you think of learning a language not as memorising some information but as re-wiring your brain—just like putting new wires between all the lights and electrical outlets in your house. No wonder it takes some time!
Can we choose whether to change or not?
Before you can re-wire your brain, though, you have to want to do it. There are some systems in your brain that always resist change. It is almost as though they don’t like change. These are the systems in your brain that try to predict your future. They are not trying to tell you if you will fall in love or have a happy life, like a fortune teller, but they are trying to predict things that will happen in the next few seconds. If you decide to stand up. you will need extra power to your leg muscles and the predicting systems in your brain can prepare your body for that. They are important in helping you to react to everything in the world around you and change is their enemy. They can be most helpful to you when there is no change: when you go to the same places every day at the same time, meet the same people, say the same things to them, and speak the same language. If everything was always the same, they would never make a mistake in their predictions; and the world would be a very boring place!
Fortunately, there are other systems in your brain that actually reward you for noticing and investigating new things. When you find something new your brain makes you feel happy by giving you a natural drug called dopamine. Dopamine not only makes you feel good (or “up”!), it also helps you to remember the thing you noticed. Noticing and remembering new things is how we learn about the world, so it is not surprising that the brain gives us a reward for doing this. Just imagine walking to school and not noticing things that have changed since you walked the same way yesterday. You might fall down a hole, or be knocked over by a bus. I don’t think you would survive very long.
So, with one part of our brain resisting change and another making us feel good when we notice and learn from change, what can we do? Well, we have a choice. We can stay in our room, never go out, never meet new people, and never learn a new language. That would be a comfortable life but not an exciting one. Or, we can look for change and enjoy it. We can do our best to accept all the chances we have to experience something new and different. If you do this, your life will not always be comfortable, but it will be exciting. You will have many chances to learn about new things and new people. And to learn a new language.
What should we do about change?
So, what should we do about change? We should enjoy it. We should look for chances to experience it. Come to school by a different route. Sit in a different seat in the classroom. Try new foods for lunch. And, as language learners: never stop looking for new ways to experience and understand the language. Your brain will adapt. That’s one of the things it does best.
By the way, some students don’t believe that their brain can change. They say things like “I will never understand this language” or “I’m not a good language learner.” Even students who say “I’m really good at doing this” have a problem. Students who think they cannot change their English ability tend to give up as soon as they have a problem. Studies show that students who think like this do less well in school than students who believe they can change and get better at learning things. However, good or bad you are at something, you can always get better at it if you make an effort. Even something as simple as repeating to yourself “I used to be bad at English, but now I’m getting better” can make a difference. Try it. You might be surprised by the change it makes.
You can change your brain. Never give up!