Language learning is like a cognitive workout for the brain. Think of the brain in terms of a bodybuilder. The more you use certain areas of the brain the stronger and more flexible these areas will become. So the more you practice a language and use lots of different methods than theoretical the better you will be in your target language. You need to practice consistently over a period of time to start to receive results.
Recent research has also shown that we have the ability to ‘unlearn’ things too and old unused neural connections can break down over time. This is known as ‘synaptic pruning‘. The brain is a complex network of neurons and you can grow and nurture synaptic connections between these neurons throughout your life. These connections are what neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine thrive on.
“If you don’t use it you will lose it”
Next, we have the caretakers of the brain known as the ‘glial cells‘. These cells help to speed up your natural broadband width, so basically your neurons are communicating faster. Other brain caretakers I call the ‘pruners‘, but are known as ‘microglial cells‘ remove the waste produced by those communicating neurons – it really is a messy process! So how do they know what to prune? Good question, well asked, but we don’t care about that in this post. What we care about is what these caretakers and pruners are actually doing and why?
Well, they are clearing the rubbish and making space for you to strengthen connections and build new ones to improve your language learning. Now, these caretakers are night shift workers (unless you sleep during the day that is) so they tend to do the weeding at sleepy time. When you are learning a new language it creates such a mess so a cleanup crew is called in (other research suggests this process can also happen during a deeply mediated state). When you sleep your brain basically runs it’s very own fragmentation – just like a computer operating system. How cool is that!
If you are sleep deprived your brain becomes slow, clogged up and hoarder level messy. This is why sleep is very important. When I am learning languages I personally try to take naps after each study session, if possible.
So how can I use this information to optimize my brain for language learning?
Well, it’s those synaptic connectors you are not using that the brain caretakers are going to take down to the rubbish dump. Studying a language for 30 minutes once a month means a weak connection and the caretaker will get rid of this weed. So regular consistent study over a period of time, maybe before sleep will help to build stronger neurological connections that the caretakers will actually help protect.
Here are 7 quick tips…
1. “Use it or lose it”
Start to use your mental energy for things that benefit you and build stronger neurons in that area.
Prime your brain for activity one of the techniques I use is the Pomodoro Technique created by Cirillo in the late 1980s. There are some fantastic free apps available to make you study more efficiently.
- Pomodoro Timer (Android) is a free, open-source timer with a minimal aesthetic. It even integrates with Google Tasks.
- Focus Timer (iOS)
3. ‘Work it Out’ – Literally
Research has shown that at least 30 – 60 minutes of aerobic exercise 3 times per week (riding a bike, jogging or even speed walking) can help rejuvenate the brain. Thus increasing the volume of the brain, especially in the frontal and temporal lobe areas. These areas are involved in executive functioning, so, for example, working memory and planning. These areas are crucial for language learning!
4. Make sleep a priority!
As discussed above whilst we sleep our brain caretakers are working hard. Their job is essential for the general health of our brains. These caretakers are both gardeners and repairers responsible for taking out the waste. There are a number of devices and apps to help you measure the quality of your sleep. Average sleep is around 7 – 8 hours, but this does depend on a number of variables including age.
5. Being Mindful and Managing Stress
The stress hormone is called cortisol. Although a small amount of stress can act as a motivator too much stress can KILL off brain cells! Research as shown that prolonged stress can cause memory loss and impair decision making. Stress management is very important. Relaxation, meditation and being more mindful are great ways to reduce stress.
Meditation is not only scientifically proven to reduces stress it can also increase blood flow in the cerebral and activate the parts of your brain that are required for concentration, decision making, focus, and mood. Again all areas required to be able to successfully learn a language.
6. Your Diet!
There is a saying “You are what you eat”. Eating too much processed and sugary foods is bad for the brain. Research shows us that it not only alters the blood flow in the brain but can also seriously impair cognition. An example of this is the risk of cognitive dysfunction in diabetes sufferers. One of the best diets I would recommend for optimizing your brain for learning is the Mediterranean Diet, which consists of fish (Omega 5), and a high intake of fruit, vegetables, unsaturated fats, and cereals.
7. Water Your Brain to Enable it to Grow!
The brain is composed of about 75% water. We lose water throughout the day. Not just in going to the toilet, but via sweat and even breathing. We need to be replacing this water and the average person should aim for around 8 glasses a day, but it does depend on one’s body mass and activity levels. Replenishing water levels can improve brain performance by around 15% (more or less).
Best of luck in your language learning journey.
So give it a try and let me know below or on social media how you get #OptimiseUBrain / #LanguageLJ
Grayson, A.and Oates J., (2006), Cognitive and Language Development in Children. The Open University Press, Milton Keynes.
Kaye H., (ed), (2010), Cognitive Psychology. The Open University Press, Milton Keynes.
Murphy K. and Nash P., (2007), Learning and Memory in Learning and Language. The Open University Press, Milton Keynes.
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