Most people learn languages to help them communicate. Now a study of recent
research into brain function reveals that students could be gaining a lot more
from their pursuit of linguistic skills.
The chief reason most people want to learn English is to be able to
communicate in the language and forge pathways into the wider world. Now a study
published by the European Commission reveals that learning an additional
language such as English may bring benefits that go beyond the ability to use
the language itself. This report has implications for why, when and how we teach
and learn English as a second or foreign language.
The report, entitled The Contribution of Multilingualism to Creativity,
includes a statistical analysis of key research into the impact that knowing and
using more than one language has on thinking and the brain. It argues that there
is a dovetailing of results between studies conducted over the last 40 years,
including recent findings from the neurosciences. The research, often involving
the use of neuro-imaging techniques, is helping us to understand more clearly
what happens in the brain when a person learns or uses more than one
One of the significant findings for English language teaching is that
changes in the brain's electrical activity may occur much earlier than
previously thought. It has been assumed that only command of different languages
at very high levels would have an impact on brain function. But this study
suggests that changes in the brain may start even in the earlier stages of
language learning. This has implications for not only recognising the value of
partial language competences, but also for understanding why certain language
learning methodologies bring better results than others.
The report identifies six areas in which the multilingual mind differs in
some way to the monolingual mind. The term multilingual is used to describe
people who use more than one language in their day-to-day lives. What we believe
is significant about the evidence clusters is the similarity of outcomes
resulting from different research approaches, and how they strengthen the
position of foreign language learning by describing distinct types of added
value. Most of the advantages described support overall competence-building for
life and work in modern, information-rich, internet environments.
The benefits reported include enhanced capacity for learning whereby
knowledge of languages can lead to superior memory function, especially
short-term "working" memory. This enables the brain to hold information longer
while the thinking processes are engaged, which can have a profound impact on
cognitive function. One implication is the positive impact of languages on the
learning of other subjects.
Another cluster concerns enhanced mental flexibility. This involves neural
pathways being opened up, which extends the capacity to think and opens access
to differing avenues for thought. Languages appear to exercise the brain as if
it were a muscle and flexibility links directly to the development of digital
literacies. For instance, some of the research in this area looks at the
advantages of language knowledge in relation to the speed and accuracy of
decision making when using multimedia such as gaming.
Enhanced problem-solving capability is also reported. This involves
superior performance in problem solving, which is cognitively demanding,
including abstract thinking skills, higher concept formation skills and creative
hypothesis formulation. It is about strengthening our capacity to identify,
understand and solve problems. One aspect is the ability to ignore distracting
and irrelevant information and focus on a given task. Another involves further
development skills in the simultaneous handling of more than one task at a given
time, otherwise known as multi-tasking.
Greater understanding of how language functions and is used to achieve
specific goals in life acts as the fourth cluster. This meta linguistic ability
involves being able to "go beyond the words", helping an individual develop
communication skills in both their first language and others. This is closely
linked to enhanced interpersonal communication awareness and skills whereby
people are better able to perceive the communicative needs of others, be more
insightful in "reading" situations through contextual sensitivity, and develop
interactional skills in communication.
Finally the study reports on research that links knowledge of languages to
a slowdown of age-related mental diminishment such as certain forms of dementia.
Language knowledge appears to reduce the rate of decline of certain cognitive
processes as a person ages, by helping the brain tolerate pathologies. This
resistance to neuropathological damage is considered to be in the range of two
to four years. Delays in mental decline of even up to six months are viewed as
having considerable implications for individuals, their families and public
Although we have not yet reached that eureka moment where a direct causal
link between learning languages and specific cognitive advantages can be proven,
the -evidence is building up fast. Since 2000 there has been a steady increase
in the number of reports being published within what is loosely termed the
educational -neurosciences, and some of these have direct implications for
English language professionals.
The cognitive neurosciences stress the need for powerful learning
environments, and yet not enough of our language education is spent encouraging
learners to engage in higher-order thinking about meaningful content that fires
up the brain.
forge v. 打造;锻造
go beyond 超出;胜过
language competence 语言表达能力
multilingual adj. 使用多种语言的 monolingual adj. 仅用一种语言的
abstract thinking 抽象思维
hypothesis formulation 假说形成;提出设想
simultaneous adj. 同时的;同步的
fire up 煽动;激发;生火