Foreign language learning and the brain

Foreign language learning and the brain

Foreign language learning and the brain: a research-based overview


As covered in the previous articles, there is more to foreign language learning than practicing writing, reading, speaking and listening – it involves a range of things to take into account depending on our level of awareness and understanding. Below is a research-based overview covering positive psychology, foreign language learning anxiety, the importance of emotions, mindfulness, and neuroplasticity that will shed a light on the subject.

oreign Language Learning Anxiety

Positive Psychology

Positive psychology is a field of study and a practice that focuses on boosting people’s well-being, life satisfaction and ‘meaningful social relations’ by enhancing and nurturing an individual’s strengths, increasing positive emotions without trying to eliminate the negative ones (Dewaele, et al., 2020). Positive Psychology is highly relevant to foreign language learning as the learning process requires dedication, motivation and resilience.

Many experiences of foreign language learning anxiety are a common cause  for someone to quit studying the language, whilst other emotions such as enjoyment, and love for the target language and culture, can be the driving force for language learning.

It is important to emphasise though that positive psychology advocates for finding a balance between the positive and negative emotions – all of the emotions are natural responses to the stimulation coming from our environment.

As per balancing those emotions and the importance of not ignoring ones like foreign language learning anxiety (or FLCA, C standing for ‘classroom’), Dewaele and MacIntyre (2016) puts it well: ‘the goal is not to eliminate FLCA any more than a runner would wish to eliminate one of their feet (even the aching, sore one)’.

It is also worth keeping in mind that negative thoughts and emotions are often not true representations of our reality that are meant to be felt, acknowledged, and let go (Oxford,2015). This is crucial to apply while learning a language – thoughts such as ‘I will embarrass myself if I speak in the target language in front of others’, ‘I can’t seem to use my language smoothly, I’m frustrated’, ‘I am so bad at this’ and others of this kind are not productive and will impact the learner negatively.

How the brain deals with stress and anxiety

Our brain works in a way that the more pressure we put on ourselves and our language skills in challenging situations, the worse we will perform. Minahan and Schultz (2015) spoke about this phenomenon in detail in their article: ‘Stress and excessive anxiety (here defined as worrying about something over which we believe we have little or no control) impairs the brain’s ability to process, acquire and store new information.

The part of the brain’s limbic system known as the amygdala is generally regarded as a fear sensor. In the frightened brain, PET and MRI scans reveal the physiological effect (increased radioactive glucose and oxygen use) of intense anxiety or stress. In this reactive state, new information is prevented from reaching the cerebral cortex (in particular, the prefrontal cortex) where higher-level processing and memory storage occur’. This is why it is so important to focus on our strengths and believe in our abilities.

Understanding positive psychology can already make a difference in education and foreign language learning. Many researchers are finding ways for incorporating it practically; one of those that have been covered is bringing more attention to emotional intelligence (EI) and providing students with guidance on how to get better at it.

Research suggests that emotional intelligence has a positive correlation with foreign language learning enjoyment and accordingly, with the lack of EI a student is prone to experience more anxiety while learning a foreign language (Li, Xu, 2019), (Dewaele, et al, 2019). This is because emotionally intelligent people have healthier coping mechanisms when a challenge or a failure is experienced, they are also more aware of the danger of giving into negative emotions and thoughts, so instead of that they tend to focus on their strengths and capabilities (as positive psychology initially suggests doing).

Positive Psychology

Foreign Language Learning Anxiety

Foreign language learning anxiety is a negative emotion that can be felt as worried, uneasiness, fear, restlessness, and can even have physical effects. Foreign language learning anxiety usually arises from the fear of negative evaluation, test taking, and communication (Fallah, 2017). Such anxiety is also natural for those traveling or living overseas, living in multicultural places, and having to use the target language for work – pretty much wherever one can be put in an unexpected situation where the target language is required to be used. If you’ve ever dealt with anxiety while learning or/and using a language you are definitely not alone – foreign language learning anxiety is a serious subject of research as it’s a common obstacle for language learners.

Luckily researchers and practitioners have quite a few suggestions on how to make it easier to go through this experience – apart from the already mentioned positive psychology practice, more will be discussed below. Although, it is worth a brief mention of what MacIntyre and Gregren discuss in their article (2012): again, the importance of emotions experienced throughout foreign language learning is great, and it can be used as a motivation by incorporating the power of imagination.

It is suggested that having a mental image of how a future self is supposed to be like as a goal can be a great driving force for learning only when the expectations (or the future self-image) are realistic; then motivation, enjoyment and love for the language and culture can be maintained. The key here is to base the future self-image not only on goals to be achieved but also on some of the traits that are already present and avoid self-comparison to other students – maintaining realistic expectations focus on your own learning journey and self-improvement will reduce anxiety.

The Study

Another recently researched positive psychology approach was reminiscing. The experimental group of university students studying English as their second language has been requested to record their emotional experience during lab sessions as well as what they were reminisced about – more specifically, what foreign language successes can they remember. After the experiment and analysis, it has been found that the group that practiced such reminiscing often has experienced a significant decrease in anxiety while the control group (that have not practiced it) maintained stable anxiety levels (Dewaele, et al, 2021).

The practice of reminiscing also allowed students to gain a better insight into language learning: giving the participants a chance to recall their language proficiency development triggered them to take a closer look at their learning trajectory, making the students realize their multi-faceted gains in language learning, not just language proficiency. The students recognized the complexity of language learning: it is not only a cognitive process, but is made up of behavioral, social, cultural, and aesthetic dimensions, all with “emotional flavorings” (Dewaele, et al, 2021).

Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation

Meditation is one of the tools that can be practiced to manage foreign language learning anxiety better, improve concentration, support positive psychology practice, and have an overall, more enjoyable language learning experience (as well as a great coping tool for any other situation). Mindfulness is one of the easiest meditations to carry out as it only requires your own body and willingness to practice it. One of the ways to achieve mindfulness is by having awareness of your breath, putting conscious effort into noticing your thoughts and distancing yourself from them and the resulting emotions, viewing the present moment objectively.

Mindfulness can be used in your day-to-day activities and will result in improved awareness; by having that awareness and a clearer understanding of yourself and your environment, you can take better decisions in difficult situations and cope better.

Many ways of incorporating mindfulness into language learning lessons and education can be used – Wang and Liu (2016) have done so by practicing mindfulness in the classroom for three months. The students were native Chinese speakers studying English as a second language, the mindfulness meditation sessions were led by the teacher and done at least once a week before or during the classroom activities.

Such meditation after exercises like reading led to positive outcomes in the classroom that were pointed out by the students: ‘From their response sharing in class, Mr. Liu found that they understood the texts deeply after doing meditation and when they were mindful’. The students not only learned the facts of the text, but also formed their own opinions.

Additionally, they enjoyed taking part in the group discussion while respecting each other’s words. Students also reported that when they were mindful, they concentrated on writing, thought independently, and learned more (Wang, Liu, 2016). Other researchers have concluded that mindfulness also helps with foreign language learning anxiety reduction: ‘Mindfulness and coping self-efficacy (CSE) are thus two of the variables which have theoretically and empirically proven to be effective factors in managing anxiety (see Brown & Ryan, 2003; Chesney, Neilands, Chambers, Taylor, & Folkman, 2006) (Fallah, 2017).

It works as mindfulness allows an individual to view the situation more objectively, being able to see the true perspective of the situation, and focus on the coping tools that we actually have which allow us to move on (mentioned self-efficacy is also quite important as it is a belief in our abilities, usually to overcome hardships) (Fallah, 2017).

Foreign language learning

Neuroplasticity and the brain

In simple terms, neuroplasticity is the skill allowing the brain to develop and adapt whenever there are changes in an individual’s environment. Our brain maintains this ability throughout a lifetime and even though it is most active from childhood until about the age of 25, starting to decrease after this point, it is not a significant factor when it comes to foreign language (or any other kind of) learning. Even at an older age, our brain is capable of high neuroplasticity – to achieve that, we only have to put a bit more conscious effort and thought into it.

There are quite a few things that can be done to support and enhance neuroplasticity. Huberman (2021) provides a few points that can be extremely helpful – firstly, working/studying during adequately timed sessions (it is suggested that 90-minute-long sessions are the most suitable), then it is crucial to have a short break that does not require much thinking, such as going for a walk, a run, taking a nap, or practicing nonsleep deep rest. Importantly, these must be followed by at least a few nights of a good night’s sleep for the brain to consolidate and retain the information (Huberman, 2021).

The Benefits of Bilingualism

What highly interferes with neuroplasticity and other brain functions is a false belief that we can multitask (it is impossible for us to do so, we can only switch between the task all the time) and distractions. When we work, study, or engage in any other activity requiring high cognition, all distractions should be kept away so that we can focus better, as once the brain is distracted, it might take up to half an hour to reach the same level of concentration (Gazzley, Rosen, 2016). Naturally, not all distractions can be muted, especially as they can be internal and external, but the usage of smartphones, television and the internet can be controlled by us.

Another interesting point that can be mentioned is how the brain can be positively affected by learning a foreign language – ‘there is evidence that lifelong bilingualism acts as a safeguard in preserving healthy brain function, possibly delaying the incidence of dementia by several years’ (Wright, Antoniou, 2017), as Bak (2016) mentions, ‘bilinguals tend to develop dementia four to five years later.

Apart from this, there are many other noted benefits such as mental flexibility, creativity, and memory, although other foreign language learning benefits should not be forgotten too, such as expanding one’s understanding of people from different cultures, being able to use a foreign language confidently when traveling, having more means of self-expression and much more. Lastly,

it is worth noting another study of the brain shows that there is a positive correlation between foreign language learning and improvement of the brain. Li, et al (2014) discuss evidence showing that ‘structural neuroplasticity occurs in the brain as a result of one’s bilingual experience’. They find that the bilingual brain changes by ‘increased gray matter (GM) density and white matter (WM) integrity, and concludes that ‘the encouraging evidence for learning, whether language or not, is that the brain can continually modify and reconfigure its function and structure, even at a later stage, as reflected in changes in GM, WM, and connectivity among regions.


Foreign language learning is a complex activity requiring dedication and consideration of many different aspects, but it is truly rewarding. The points and suggestions covered above are not only highly relevant to foreign language learning, but also to the overall improvement of daily life if practiced/incorporated willingly and consistently.


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