Last week I was in London training a group of experienced language teachers to become Neurolanguage coaches. Between us we all shared over 100 years of teaching experience and it really was a super group, with great interactions, observations and after three days definitely all of them were demonstrating the transition from teacher to coach. When we were talking about the neuroscience aspects of learning, I shared my description of the language learning process and how it is really like a step learning process. But not just a flight of normal steps! No! We all know those long tread steps which have a longer plateau than normal and then a short step up – those are the steps I mean! And with language learning we all know that for such a long time we feel like there is no progress and we are stuck on a long plateau, when suddenly we start to feel that we understand more, we can speak more and we generally feel a difference. But then it happens again we fall into that feeling of “nothing happening” and “no improvement” and again we find ourselves on the next plateau……feeling despondent and depressed because we feel no progress…when suddenly …up another step. And so on and so on……until we have a long tread, short rise stairway to fluency.All of the group agreed with me – I think anyone who has learnt a language would agree with me, we have all had this experience.
One of the group then asked me what I thought the reason for this “step learning process” was and on immediate reflection I did not have the answer. That evening I really thought deeply about that question. Firstly I wondered whether it was in fact only a “process” pertaining to language learning and I really asked myself how I had learnt other things in life – like playing the piano or learning to drive. My conclusion is that in everything we learn, there is potentially that long tread staircase learning process and the key to that step up and improvement really depends on our neural connections and how much we have reinforced these and also the volume of the topic to be learnt.
Whenever we learn something new, the brain is making new neural connections. When those neural connections have been reinforced enough and consolidated, they then become hardwired and my hunch is that when we have enough hardwired neural connections , these then create neural networks that gives us that consolidated learning that pushes us up the next step. Then, we continue learning more language, until again the brain has hardwired enough and created new neural networks to then take that next step up. So, in fact it would always depend on how consistent we are with the input and the consolidation (that means practice, practice, practice) and on how much we are learning in the different areas of grammar, which the brain then pieces and clusters together in such a fashion that we then make progress.
Obviously, the volume of the topic we are learning will also determine how many steps in our staircase. For example learning to ride a bicycle, probably entails only a couple of steps. Maybe we learn first with a stabilizer on the back wheel and once this is hardwired we take the next step up and take the stabilizer off and then once this is hardwired, we then have learnt to ride a bike and reached the maximum learning point. Learning a language involves a much higher volume of input and in consequence a much lengthier staircase.
I would be really interested to hear your views on this – what do you think about the Long Tread, Low Step Stairway to Language Learning?
Copyright Rachel Marie Paling 2015