The English Learners' Blog

A blog for English learners and their teachers everywhere, initiated in 2010 with the contribution of students from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. More about me on the On-line Profile below. Welcome!

How your brain learns English (and how it doesn’t)

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Hello, there, English learning enthusiasts wherever you are!

It is my pleasure to introduce a new post by ELB guest blogger, Aaron Knight from New York. His post is an excellent resource that complements the previous article on brain matters I recently published on the ELB.  You are invited to explore more great posts by Aaron at this link. Enjoy! 

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How your brain learns English (and how it doesn’t) 

I sometimes worry that the lessons I write contain too much information.

“Information” includes anything that can be written as a “rule”: grammar rules, explanations of the difference between two words, etc.

It’s OK to learn information about English. But it’s much, much more effective to become used to English through repeated speaking and listening. Here’s why:

Your brain isn’t one big container that can be improved just by dumping more information into it.

Instead, imagine that your mind has two separate “buckets”.  One part of your mind (the Knowledge section) stores information. Another separate part of your mind (the Performance section) controls things that you’re able to do, like draw a picture, drive a car, or speak a language.

When you learn information about English, it goes into the Knowledge section of your brain. But the parts of your brain are separate. Your knowledge might grow, but that doesn’t necessarily improve your ability to use English.

Experience improves performance

You know how to gain Knowledge about English: by reading textbooks and listening to teachers. But how do you improve your Performance?

By listening, speaking, reading, and writing. You improve by doing.

As you listen to natural English, you will naturally start to copy the patterns that you hear, even if you can’t quite explain what they mean.

As you speak English, you’ll get used to speaking in a certain way. The words will come out more automatically.

Why knowledge still helps

I still write explanations for all of my lessons. Why? Because a little bit of knowledge can be helpful. When you concentrate hard on something that you’ve learned, you can temporarily improve your speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

The improvement is only temporary. When you stop concentrating, you’ll go back to your old habits. But by hearing and speaking correctly, you can slowly train your Performance brain to continue the new habits.

The important point is to treat information as a tool. Learn some rules, but just a few at a time. Then be sure to practice them until they’ve become natural to you.

What do you think? Do you agree with my little theory? Are you guilty of paying too much attention to rules and information? Answer in the comments!

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Filed under: 3►SPEAK▼, ■ BM Brain Matters, ■ Brain Matters, TOPICS▼

Conversation Topic: Brain Matters

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1. Think about your answers to the questions below and discuss them with your colleagues:

  • How do you relax? How do you relax while studying?
  • What makes you study faster?
  • What helps you become and stay focused?

SPEAKING PRACTICE PROMPTS

  •   I feel relaxed when …
  • If I want to feel relaxed, I …
  • I study faster if/ when …
  • I discovered that I can stay focused if/ when …

Read more about the 12 brain rules at the links below:

  1.  EXERCISE | Rule #1: Exercise boosts brain power.
  2.  SURVIVAL | Rule #2: The human brain evolved, too.
  3.  WIRING | Rule #3: Every brain is wired differently.
  4.  ATTENTION | Rule #4: We don’t pay attention to boring things.
  5.  SHORT-TERM MEMORY | Rule #5: Repeat to remember.
  6.  LONG-TERM MEMORY | Rule #6: Remember to repeat.
  7.  SLEEP | Rule #7: Sleep well, think well.
  8.  STRESS | Rule #8: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.
  9.  SENSORY INTEGRATION | Rule #9: Stimulate more of the senses.
  10.  VISION | Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses.
  11.  GENDER | Rule #11: Male and female brains are different.
  12.  EXPLORATION | Rule #12: We are powerful and natural explorers.

2. Answer your teacher’s questions (aimed at the underlined fragments) and make comments on the rules for improving brain power from John Medina’s book, Brain Rules.

[NOTE: All the info presented below can be found at http://brainrules.net.]

Rule #1: Exercise boosts brain power.

The human brain evolved under conditions of almost constant motion. From this, one might predict that the optimal environment for processing information would include motion. That is exactly what one finds. Indeed, the best business meeting would have everyone walking at about 1.8 miles per hour.

Researchers studied two elderly populations that had led different lifestyles, one sedentary and one active. Cognitive scores were profoundly influenced. Exercise positively affected executive function, spatial tasks, reaction times and quantitative skills.

So researchers asked: If the sedentary populations become active, will their cognitive scores go up? Yes, it turns out, if the exercise is aerobic. In four months, executive functions vastly improve; long and short-term memory scores improve as well.

Exercise improves cognition for two reasons:

  • Exercise increases oxygen flow into the brain, which reduces brain-bound free radicals. One of the most interesting findings of the past few decades is that an increase in oxygen is always accompanied by an uptick in mental sharpness.
  • Exercise acts directly on the molecular machinery of the brain itself. It increases neurons’ creation, survival, and resistance to damage and stress.

Rule #2: The human brain evolved, too.

  • The brain is a survival organ. It is designed to solve problems related to surviving in an unstable outdoor environment and to do so in nearly constant motion (to keep you alive long enough to pass your genes on). We were not the strongest on the planet but we developed the strongest brains, the key to our survival.
  • The strongest brains survive, not the strongest bodies. Our ability to solve problems, learn from mistakes, and create alliances with other people helps us survive. We took over the world by learning to cooperate and forming teams with our neighbors.
  • Our ability to understand each other is our chief survival tool. Relationships helped us survive in the jungle and are critical to surviving at work and school today.
  • If someone does not feel safe with a teacher or boss, he or she may not perform as well. If a student feels misunderstood because the teacher cannot connect with the way the student learns, the student may become isolated.
  • There is no greater anti-brain environment than the classroom and cubicle.

Rule #4: We don’t pay attention to boring things.

  • What we pay attention to is profoundly influenced by memory. Our previous experience predicts where we should pay attention. Culture matters too. Whether in school or in business, these differences can greatly affect how an audience perceives a given presentation.
  • We pay attention to things like emotions, threats and sex. Regardless of who you are, the brain pays a great deal of attention to these questions: Can I eat it? Will it eat me? Can I mate with it? Will it mate with me? Have I seen it before?
  • The brain is not capable of multi-tasking. We can talk and breathe, but when it comes to higher level tasks, we just can’t do it.
  • Driving while talking on a cell phone is like driving drunk. The brain is a sequential processor and large fractions of a second are consumed every time the brain switches tasks. This is why cell-phone talkers are a half-second slower to hit the brakes and get in more wrecks.
  • Workplaces and schools actually encourage this type of multi-tasking. Walk into any office and you’ll see people sending e-mail, answering their phones, Instant Messaging, and on MySpace—all at the same time. Research shows your error rate goes up 50% and it takes you twice as long to do things.
  • When you’re always online you’re always distracted. So the always online organization is the always unproductive organization.

Rule #7: Sleep well, think well.

  • When we’re asleep, the brain is not resting at all. It is almost unbelievably active! It’s possible that the reason we need to sleep is so that we can learn.
  • Sleep must be important because we spend 1/3 of our lives doing it! Loss of sleep hurts attention, executive function, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning, and even motor dexterity.
  • We still don’t know how much we need! It changes with age, gender, pregnancy, puberty, and so much more.
  • Napping is normal. Ever feel tired in the afternoon? That’s because your brain really wants to take a nap. There’s a battle raging in your head between two armies. Each army is made of legions of brain cells and biochemicals – one desperately trying to keep you awake, the other desperately trying to force you to sleep. Around 3 p.m., 12 hours after the midpoint of your sleep, all your brain wants to do is nap.
  • Taking a nap might make you more productive. In one study, a 26-minute nap improved NASA pilots’ performance by 34 percent.
  • Don’t schedule important meetings at 3 p.m. It just doesn’t make sense.

Rule #8: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.

  • Your brain is built to deal with stress that lasts about 30 seconds. The brain is not designed for long term stress when you feel like you have no control. The saber-toothed tiger ate you or you ran away but it was all over in less than a minute. If you have a bad boss, the saber-toothed tiger can be at your door for years, and you begin to deregulate. If you are in a bad marriage, the saber-toothed tiger can be in your bed for years, and the same thing occurs. You can actually watch the brain shrink.
  • Stress damages virtually every kind of cognition that exists. It damages memory and executive function. It can hurt your motor skills. When you are stressed out over a long period of time it disrupts your immune response. You get sicker more often. It disrupts your ability to sleep. You get depressed.
  • The emotional stability of the home is the single greatest predictor of academic success. If you want your kid to get into Harvard, go home and love your spouse.
  • You have one brain. The same brain you have at home is the same brain you have at work or school. The stress you are experiencing at home will affect your performance at work, and vice versa.

Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses.

  • We are incredible at remembering pictures. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you’ll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you’ll remember 65%.
  • Pictures beat text as well, in part because reading is so inefficient for us. Our brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures, and we have to identify certain features in the letters to be able to read them. That takes time.
  • Why is vision such a big deal to us?Perhaps because it’s how we’ve always apprehended major threats, food supplies and reproductive opportunity.

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Filed under: 1►TO DO, 3►SPEAK▼, ■ BM Brain Matters, ■ Brain Matters, TOPICS▼

2011 in review

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 7,200 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Filed under: ■ Celebrations

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