The Social Brain in the L2 Classroom

September 2020

We explore the social side of the brain with a deep dive into all the different ways that socializing impacts–and even enhances–learning. This month’s issue is chock full of tips and tricks for teachers to harness the power of the social brain and improve their classrooms.

Cover photo credits to Srinivas JD on 

Watch before you read...

Our introductory video speakers, Matthew Lieberman and Louis Cozolino are recognized as leading experts on the social brain. Julia Daley will summarize their ideas and describe the social brain in her opening piece.

To start the Think Tank, our guest editor from Australia, Skye Playsted, will examine the social needs of learners in her speaking classes. Veteran Marc Helgesen passes on a delightful, social-brain-based ELT activity that is likely to result in new friends and maybe even new couples. Harumi Kimura will then follow with a deeper look at the social brain in the classroom: insights on incivility and social instigation that she found in her research.

In the Plus, Glenn Magee offers us a book review of Lieberman’s much acclaimed Social, just before Alessandro Grimaldi closes the issue with a personal story.  He tells us how his means to explore the high degree of language anxiety in one of his classes turned out to be its solution. As we struggle with distanced and distancing classes during the pandemic, we consider this issue especially timely.

Our Thoughts on the Social Brain

Super Social Students Julia Daley

It probably goes without saying that the single reason students study another language is to learn how to communicate in that language. We cannot socialize with other people without using language. And yet, how often do we encounter language classrooms with no social interaction at all beyond a teacher lecturing about grammar to passive students? When do these students actually socialize with each other in their target language?

 No wonder so many students lose interest in or give up on language learning.

Think Tank Articles

Nurturing Learners’ Relationships and Confidence in the Speaking Skills Classroom Skye Playsted

We know that people have social needs but, after many years in the classroom, I find I’m only just beginning to understand the importance of social brain research to teaching and learning. In this article, I’ll discuss how social brain research is relevant to English language teaching. It’s relevant to all areas of education, of course, but my focus will be on classes in which speaking skills are taught.

Psychologists have found that our brains spend a lot of time engaged in mental processes involved in perceiving and interpreting social interactions. We even have a network in our brain that is devoted to watching others and determining their thoughts, moods, and intentions, a network that is active every moment it can be, a kind of default (Lieberman, 2013).It seems that the brain is built to “thrive…on interaction with others” (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2011, p. 452).

The Social Brain in Practice: 36 Questions for Making Friends Marc Helgesen

Dr. Arthur Aron, a psychologist and researcher at State University of New York–Stony Brook, with colleagues, published an article about a series of 36 questions that he says can increase people’s emotional connection (Aron et al., 1997).  The questions are in three parts of twelve questions each. At each level, there is a deepening of the content of the questions. For example, at the first level, there are items like, “Would you like to be famous? In what way?” and “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?” Not that the questions are superficial small talk. In set one, an item asks, “Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?” But by the time in interlocutors get to set three, they are talking about things like, “Complete this sentence: ‘I wish I had someone with whom I could share…’” and “When did you last cry in front of another person?”  Aron and colleagues describe the deepening of topics as “escalating, reciprocal, personalistic self-disclosure, and intimacy-associated behaviors” (p. 364). 

Tapping into the Social Brain to Tackle Classroom Incivility: Emotional and Social Intelligence Harumi Kimura

Language teachers regularly put their students into pairs and groups, hoping that they will be active in their interaction. They hope that their students will have ample time for attentive listening, make use of speaking opportunities, negotiate for meaning, and exchange ideas in another language. They believe that, through small group activities, their students can use the language more, develop accuracy, fluency, and confidence, and learn to become proficient users of the language. These benefits of pair-work and groupwork (henceforth “small group work”) are appealing to teachers and in most foreign language learning situations; they are practically the only way to have students practice the L2.

Think Tank Plus


Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect Glenn A. Magee

Social: Why our Brains are Wired to Connect is a book about how our brain and nervous system shape cognition and behavior. The book consists of twelve chapters with three main sections that cover three critical evolutionary brain adaptations that motivate us toward social connection and to form unified social groups and organizations. These adaptations are: the overlap between social and physical pain systems in the brain (connection); how we are constantly paying attention to what other people think (mindreading); and how we adapt to and are influenced by our environments and are motivated to help other people more than ourselves (harmonizing). The last three chapters of the book provide an additional section that takes the scientific discussion and roots it in practical applications for work and education.

The Anxious Elephant in the Room Alessandro Grimaldi

One of the most painful experiences for us as teachers is seeing students crippled by language anxiety. Halfway through the 2018 academic year, one of my intermediate freshman communication classes was struggling to make progress, and there were signs that anxiety was taking a heavier than usual toll on the students.

We all have students who go red-faced, visibly tremble, or break out in a sweat when they communicate in a second language. When things get bad, weekly failures can reinforce learned helplessness that can be difficult to change. In my case, attempts to reduce apprehension, such as creating a warm and accepting atmosphere and being conscious of error correction methods, were not enough. Structured group and pair activities that other classes had taken to with relative ease were often met with unenthusiastic stares and I was afraid that attendance would begin to suffer.

Call for Contributions: Ideas & Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

Time for a smile

Don’t forget the romantic relationships our learners seek!

With much appreciated permission from Dan Piraro,

When calling in the experts can lead to a breakthrough

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The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Marc Helgesen

         Curtis H. Kelly                Skye Playsted                Heather McCulloch



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