Foreign languages: This is how the brain learns best

Vocabulary, Grammar, Idioms: What the brain needs to memorize a new language

Publishers and language schools praise recipes for success, teachers swear by personally developed learning methods, and among learners make merktipps and donkey bridges the round. The goal: to master a foreign language so well that you can use it in everyday life.


Research for many years has also been concerned with the question of what happens when learning foreign languages ​​in the brain. Although there are many questions left in this area of ​​research, it is already clear that there is not a single optimal learning method. But there are insights that language learners should consider if they want to succeed quickly.


Learn vocabulary: networking for the brain

Billion nerve cells are at work here. With their help, we continuously learn.

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Unlike a dictionary, the so-called mental encyclopedia – our word memory in the brain – resembles a gigantic network: Lightning fast, the correct words and expressions can be combined into sentences using countless links. The better a word is networked, the easier it will be in an emergency.

To make this networking, it depends on two things: quantity and quality.

The quantity is obvious: if we use a word regularly, our brain has it right away.

Foreign language learners have a lot of influence on the quality of networking: the more memories, feelings or associations we associate with an expression, the easier it is for the brain to access it.


Anyone who has ever struggled for a vocabulary in the conversation knows the experience: We know exactly that we should actually know the word, and maybe even in which chapter of the textbook it was on the vocabulary list. But we can not think of it, we even annoy us a bit about ourselves. Until finally someone helps us with the word you are looking for. From then on, the vocabulary remains present and can be accessed at any time – because we now connect it with a memory and a feeling.


So you have to experiment with new vocabulary: to form example sentences, to imagine situations in which we could use them, or just to think about whether we find the word beautiful and if so, why.


Especially example sentences are perfect memory aids for the brain. Language researchers recommend learning vocabulary in word combinations. This has another advantage: It not only supports networking, but can also save you from many language tripping hazards. For example, anyone who simply learns that bus is called ‘bus’ in English may formulate the wrong sentence: “I drive with the bus”. If you learn the word in typical combinations like “I go by bus” or “I get off the bus”, you can avoid such mistakes.


That this type of learning is particularly well suited to the learning of the brain, shows the study of child language acquisition: Children learn in their mother tongue first fixed expressions and only later individual words. For example, they know early on that bedtime is always said “good night!”. Only much later does her brain analyze that these are two independent words.


Immerse in the language pool
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Travel is the best opportunity to immerse yourself in a language bath. But at home there are many ways to practice.

Brain researchers know that our brains learn almost on their own if we have enough input and opportunity to practice. Any situation where real communication takes place, which is not about learning but about other content, is therefore useful for learning languages.
Even as adults, we can still benefit from this innate language learning ability. However, in practice it is not always easy to find exercise opportunities, because a real need to use a foreign language is rare in Germany.


However, every opportunity to immerse yourself in the language pool can be achieved by any learner. For example, DVDs offer the opportunity to watch films or series in the original language. However, subtitles should only be used in the foreign language, if at all: studies show that there are hardly any learning effects when the subtitles are in their native language.


The internet can also be used for language learning. For example, posting postings to a foreign language forum on a favorite topic, chatting or tweeting in another language is right in the middle of the interaction and learning process.


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