Tag Archives: neuroscience

Angry words


“What if instead of tabbing over to the web browser in search of some nugget of gossip or news, or opening up a mindless game such as Angry Birds, we could instead scratch the itch by engaging in a meaningful activity, such as learning a foreign language?”

A man named Harry walks into a café. Eliza Doolittle, who is working in the restaurant as a waitress, greets him in her dire cockney accent, “Ari”. He orders a slice of cake with layers of sponge, cream and forest fruit: a “gateaux”. When Elisa brings over his order, Ari looks at the gateaux, and says “thank you”.

Ari-gatou – you’ve just learned how to say thank you in Japanese through mnemonics: memorisation strategies inspired by the ancient Greeks and endorsed by memory champions as the most effective way to quickly remember large amounts of information.  Memory virtuoso Joshua Foer reports on the benefits of using these techniques for  learning  vocabulary in his article “How I learned a language in 22 hours”, after setting himself the challenge of learning Lingala for his field trip to the Congo. Joshua worked on his vocabulary using memrise, a slick on-line game which draws from mnemonics to optimise memory power. It may come as no surprise that the US memory champion cruised through his vocabulary sets. But before practising these techniques, Joshua, along with many other “memory athletes”, described himself as having only an average memory. In the words of British memory champion, and co-creator of memrise Ed Cooke, “anybody can do this”. So worry not if you can’t remember where you put your keys, or your car, you can never put a name to a face and you once left your child at the supermarket: mnemonics might just work for you.

Learning vocabulary is an enormous undertaking. In their native language, college-educated English speakers are estimated to possess a whopping 60, 00 word vocabulary (Pinker 1994). Children between the ages of one and six act as “lexical vacuum cleaners”, picking up around 9 to 10 words per day (Pinker 1994; Bloom 2000). If you’ve ever set yourself this familiar target for learning a foreign language, you’ll realise what a cognitive challenge this is. Yet children do it with finesse, without dictionaries, word lists or fancy apps.  The difference between adult and child vocabulary development recalls the age-old nature vs. nurture schism which has been causing bloodthirsty brawls between meek and mild academics and sending hungover undergraduates to sleep for centuries. The nativist camp (e.g. Pinker; Markman) argue that babies are born with an innate ability to learn vocabulary which fades as the maturation process kicks in, leaving adults at a cognitive disadvantage. Alternatively, empiricists (e.g. Snow; Bates; Tomasello) emphasise social and contextual differences: adults often receive less (and different) exposure to the second language, cognition may be biased towards first language settings and adult inhibitions may hinder vocabulary development. Putting aside linguistic fisticuffs about how our brains are wired, all approaches agree that learning vocabulary is a formidable challenge: any techniques which assist in memorisation are a welcome addition to the language learner’s tool box.

The site memrise takes advantage of mnemonics by linking new vocabulary items to images, rhymes or anything memorable about the word. Learners are encouraged to visualise the details: “the stranger the imagery, the more markedly memorable it is” – think Eliza Doolittle with a blackforest gateaux in hand. To help adults overcome their fear of vocabulary lists, creators Ed Cooke and Princeton neuroscience PhD Greg Detr drew from principles of social gaming to make studying “so fun, so secure, so well directed and so mischievously effortless that it’s more like a game – something you’d want to do instead of watching TV”. What’s more, with a smartphone these games are completely mobile: time spent stuck in traffic refining your road-rage vocab could be put towards more useful linguistic prowess. In the supermarket, instead of deliberating whether to move to a shorter queue (or take out the granny at the front with a tin of beans), you could be serenely buffing up on how to order a cocktail in Spanish.

Designed to be played in short bursts, the game is based on time-honoured principles of human cognition: studies show that the most effective way to commit something to memory is through “spaced repetition”, where information is encountered in short repeated sessions spaced out over a relatively long period of time. True to form, Joshua learned the 1000 most common words in Lingala in short 5 minute bursts, totalling 22 hours over a space of 10 weeks. Amazingly, upon arriving in the Congo, Joshua was able to converse with the natives in a simple exchange about family and friends. Not a bad result from playing the linguistic equivalent to angry birds for a few minutes a day. Admittedly, when it came to communicating more complex information, he was lost for words. So can mnemonics help you learn a language in 22 hours? Probably not. But they can do wonders for your word power.

  • Do you use any mnemonic techniques in your teaching?
  • Can you think of any activities to encourage students to use mnemonics, either in the classroom or at home?





Bates, E., Bretherton, I., Beeghly-Smith, M., McNew, S. (1982) Social bases of language development: A reassessment. In Reese, W., and Lipsitt, L. P. (Eds) Advances in Child Development and Behaviour (16) 

Bloom, P. (2000) How children learn the meaning of words, MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Markman, E (1991) Categorization and Naming in Children, MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts

Pinker, S. (1994) The language instinct Penguin Books: London

Snow, C.E. (1999) Social perspectives on the emergence of language. In B. MacWhinney (Ed.), The emergence of language (pp.257-276). Lawrence Erlbaum: Mahwah, New Jersey

Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Oxford, R. L., Scarcella, R. C., (1994) Second language vocabulary learning among adults: State of the art in vocabulary instruction. System 2:22 (231–243)


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The linguistic genius of babies: what does it mean for grown-ups?

“In investigating the child’s brain, we may be able to help keep our own minds open to learning for our entire lives”

Chinese tones are baffling to non-native speakers. While westerners marvel at how a seemingly small pitch change is enough to differentiate between words like “mother” and “horse”, Chinese natives get the giggles when expats get all nostalgic about their horse’s cooking. Notoriously difficult to master, these differences are often incredibly subtle to non-native ears. Yet native Mandarin speakers differentiate tones with the same ease as English speakers perceive consonant contrasts in words like punk and monk. This contrast is what’s known by linguists as a minimal pair (and by barbers as what saves Sid Vicious wannabes from walking around with an unfortunate bald patch). But why is it that minimal pairs which are so obvious to native speakers can be so troublesome, and at times downright embarrassing in a second language?

Studies of how babies learn to differentiate sounds in their mother tongue shed some light on the matter. Neuroscientist Patricia Kuhl explains how newborns are “citizens of the world” equipped to distinguish between all sounds in all languages, from English to Igbo. Between the age of 6 and 12 months, neural networks lock on to native sound patterns, preparing babies to become more effective communicators in their mother tongue. The downside of this neural commitment is that it leads to a decreased sensitivity of sound patterns in other languages.

So what does this mean for those who learn languages later in life? Do adult brains maintain enough plasticity to accommodate new languages, or are neural networks set in stone? Many studies indicate that some plasticity remains (e.g. Evans and Iverson 2003; Hazan et al. 2005; Kingston 2003), although the jury is still out on how much. We simply don’t know enough about the human brain to answer this question yet. However, Kuhl is optimistic that the dynamic field of neurolinguistics will one day provide us with a better understanding of how adults learn sound patterns in other languages.

It certainly seems that grown-ups get bit of a biological raw deal. Adults rarely attain native-like pronunciation, even after many years of living in an L2 speaking country (Harris 2010). Does this mean we should give up on pronunciation training, throw our IPA charts on to the fire and settle for a life of trying to guess if students are angry or hungry? Absolutely not. Iverson et al. (2005, 2011) demonstrate that targeted discrimination training is exactly what students need to improve their sensitivity to English sounds. The most successful techniques involve giving students repeated, focused exposure to sound contrasts (such as the vowels in sheep vs ship) with a variety of speakers in different contexts. This training has been shown to have a positive effect on both perception and production, suggesting that we can and should help students with targeted pronunciation exercises. Give students more practice. It might just save them from a lifetime of anxiety over asking for a “sheet” of paper lest they get the wrong vowel sound…

  • Why do you think some adults are better at “picking up” accents than others?
  • Do you think that pronunciation can be explicitly taught?
  • If you teach pronunciation, what sort of exercises do you do?
  • Do you have any suggestions about integrating discrimination training into lessons?

Evans, B. G., Iverson, P. (2007). Plasticity in vowel perception and production: A study of accent change in young adults. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 121(6)

Harris, K. (2010) Native English speakers’ production of Italian /t/: The extent of phonetic learning in adult second language acquisition and the effect of native speaker input. Leeds Working Papers 15 pp.40-73

Hazan, V. et al., 2004. Effect of intensive audiovisual perceptual training on the perception and production of the /l/-/r/ contrast for Japanese learners of English. Speech Communication, 47(3), p.360-378.

Iverson, P., Hazan, V. & Bannister, K., 2005. Phonetic training with acoustic cue manipulations: A comparison of methods for teaching English vertical bar r vertical bar-vertical bar l vertical bar to Japanese adults. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 118(5), p.3267-3278.

Iverson, P., Pinet, M., Evans, B. G. (2011). Auditory training for experienced and inexperienced second-language learners: Native French speakers learning English vowels. Applied Psycholinguistics

Kingston, J. (2003). Learning foreign vowels. Language and Speech, 46, 295–349.



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