Learning a second language is like yoga for your brain. There was a famous show any geek would know that said “Space, the final frontier” and at the time, when the show had come out, it was. Some twenty years ago neuroscientists from around the globe declared a similar statement “The Brain, the final frontier”. They wanted to help us laymen understand the daunting task of trying to understand our noggin, they wanted to give us an idea of the vastness of what we need to know. Our knowledge on the subject has grown exponentially, much like it did with space since we first stepped on the moon. The human being is truly amazing when guided by intention and desire. Scientists have begun to focus on the brain in relation to being human, to consciousness and to learning. I sat in a classroom in 1995 with a neuroscience professor who looked like a beatnik and fell in love, with the brain. I began to study on my own, since this fateful class was my last semester senior year of university. When I went for an advanced degree in education I was already teaching children about the brain and making hypotheses about how learning could be enhanced with brain research, I based my thesis on it and it was all very exciting. Now I teach children and adults to speak Spanish but behind that is my own agenda, to teach people how to improve learning through the knowledge and understanding their own cerebral matter. After many years of research we know now that this approach works, when we learn about how we learn we learn better. (Say that 10 times fast!) Becoming a polyglot, is the single most powerful supplement you can give your brain. Language and math engage your whole brain, they are like lubricants for the motor that is our thinking. The cerebrum is efficient, kind of like my dad when I was a kid with the lights in the house. He would go around the house shutting off every light in the house that wasn’t in the room we were in. The brain does the same thing, if you don’t use it, it turns it off, it is a way to use its power more efficiently. You give the brain a directive like “I want to learn to speak Spanish” and it begins activating the parts necessary for the task. As we get older and more set in our thinking and activities, these parts we haven’t used in a while begin to atrophy, shrink and develop cognitive deterioration. Second language learning kick starts the brain; it activates the recesses and helps it grow again. What stop! The brain grows? Some 20 years ago, around the time my beatnik professor was blowing my mind, there was a theory that the cerebrum reached an optimal potential in adulthood, that you were somehow given a certain number of neurons and if you played your cards right you could keep them. It dictated that the neurons were like sand in an hourglass that could be accelerated with each vice. Nothing could be further from the truth. Learning is about synapses and connections, as you make more, that grey matter continues to grow. Whole brain learning and in turn second language learning can be thought of as the fertilizer for cerebral growth, so much so that cognitive deterioration, diseases and ailments can be improved and, more importantly, staved off by learning a language or math. I love science! The greatest misconception we have about the brain is memory. I work with older adults that assure me on a daily basis that they are losing their memory and they tell themselves that it is the natural outcome of old age. As we age we expect to begin losing our memory and our mind to falter. This may be the single most detrimental thought a human can have. Remember the brain will take on your directive, so if you tell it that it is supposed to get stupider, it says “OK boss” and starts slacking off. It is not that you are losing your memory it is that the bank is full. On the contrary your brain grows when you learn and learning should not be exclusively memory based. In reality, it should have never been in the first place, that was another outcome of a misunderstanding of how the brain works. The idea of rote memory was always faulty, we should be learning in patterns. Memory is cast by a number of things and repetition is surely one of them, but for truly lasting memory we need extra stimulus; emotion, extreme experiences and intent. When we want something the brain stores things differently, as if to make a file for it. When we learn another language we must create a new database of words and connect that file to all the sections of our brain, hence whole brain learning. There are a lot of reasons to learning a second language; it is fun, you meet new people, you see another face of the world and you improve your native language at the same time. There is one, much more important, reason to keep learning anything, it keeps your brain growing and working properly. One thing we were told is true, the brain is a muscle, the more you use it the firmer and stronger it gets. Second language learning is the best workout your brain could ever want. Like yoga for your brain. Polyglot- Someone who can speak more than two languages.
Sylvia Monge owns Spanish for Expats (spanishforexpatscr.com ) and thinks the brain is ridiculously cool. She uses her knowledge and study of the brain to make learning Spanish and English easier, more entertaining and engaging. She dreams of a world where brain potential is finally realized.