Importance of Right-Brain Learning for Foreign Language

Sometimes learning isn’t fun. Sometimes it’s tedious, challenging, frustrating, exhausting.  This can be especially true for learning a foreign language.  But wait, learning wasn’t always awful, was it?  What about when you learned to drive a car, or play a new game?  What makes learning a new language any different?  The answer lies in the way in which information is absorbed by the brain.  Fortunately, the right approach can make a big difference in enjoyment as well as effectiveness.

The two sides of the brain

To understand this better, we first need a brief lesson on the brain. The brain is composed of two hemispheres, the left and the right.  The two sides process information very differently.  The left brain is analytical, orderly, and detail oriented.  It monitors behavior, and understands rules and boundaries.  The right brain is intuitive, emotional, and holistic.  It specializes in sounds and images, and understands relationships and humor.

The left and right hemispheres of your brain are like two completely different people. As such it’s not surprising that they play different roles in learning, and prefer different styles of learning.  The left brain likes to learn from textbooks, lectures and logic, while the right brain likes to learn from pictures, stories and experiences.  Everyone learns with both sides of their brain, however many individuals find one side to be dominant, and often learn better using techniques which favor that side.

While people are divided fairly equally between left- and right-brain dominance, schools tend to exclusively utilize left-brain learning techniques (textbooks, lectures, exams, memorization, etc.). Therefore right-brain learners often struggle with many subjects, especially subjects that benefit from right-brain teaching techniques utilizing sensory stimulus and hands-on experience.

Implications for language learning

The left and right sides of the brain have very different roles to play in learning foreign languages. The left brain is responsible for learning the rules and structures of a language, and can make sense out of what is heard, as well as formulate a response.  The right brain is better at memorizing the words and sounds, and making them rapidly available to the left brain when called upon.  The two sides work together to construct or deconstruct the language building blocks in a meaningful way that follows the rules of the language.  You simply cannot understand or speak a language without both sides of the brain, and it’s important to teach each side in the way that works best for it.

Language patterns don’t always make sense, and the left brain is going to have a hard time with that. The patterns we learned in speaking our native language can essentially sabotage our efforts to learn new ones, especially when they appear to be the same.  For example when we see an “r” in a word, we want to say the American English “r” sound, but the “r” sound is quite different in Spanish, French or German.  Our left brain will be constantly trying to find common ground between the two different “r” sounds, resulting in an American English accent.  Only by shutting out the left brain can we learn to pronounce the “r” like a native.

Fortunately the right brain isn’t so critical, and has no problem with ambiguity or novelty. Remember this is the side of the brain that appreciates art.  So when learning new sounds or words in a foreign language, it’s best to direct the input to the right brain.  With foreign language vocabulary, the goal is to load up the brain with as many words and sounds as possible, as well as their associated meanings.  The right brain excels in this sort of thing.  It absorbs information subconsciously and in a non-linear fashion, so fragments of information can be stored and recalled instantaneously and effortlessly.  Compared to the left brain, it will memorize words more quickly, more accurately, more easily, and more permanently.  Learning in this way can actually be quite fun.

So how does one go about teaching language to the right side of the brain? Simply listening to native speakers every day would be a good start.  That would get the brain used to hearing the sounds.  Having multiple speakers is also a good idea, especially of both genders, since students tend to shape their pronunciation after the native speaker.

However we also need to know the meanings of the words, and we don’t want to memorize the translations from English, as that creates an extra step for the left brain to do the translation, jeopardizing the likelihood of ever becoming fluent. We need to create fundamental, intuitive linkages between concepts and the words.  One good way to do this is to show the object, especially if the image is stimulating or triggers some emotional response.  That helps the association stick.  Ideally the foreign word should be spoken and also shown visually, to maximize right-brain stimulus.  There should not be any English in the process, but it may be necessary to clarify a word’s specific meaning or nuance.

It is upon these principles that we created Dragonfly Language Video Flashcards. The Flashcards rely purely on right-brain learning techniques:

  • Native professional speakers, both male and female
  • Flashcards are repeated several times in each lesson
  • Vivid and captivating images are used to stimulate the right brain and strengthen associations
  • English words are displayed for limited duration during the beginning of each lesson to clarify meaning

Utilizing right-brain learning techniques in this way can result in high-speed and long-term learning which is ideally suited for building foreign language vocabulary. Dragonfly Language Video Flashcards are a powerful tool which leverages these advantages to form a foundation of vocabulary similar to that of native speakers, and can be an ideal companion to any foreign language learning curriculum.

Do Flashcards Really Work?

Ah, the humble flashcard. You may have memories of carrying a small stack of dog-eared flashcards in your hooded sweatshirt, cramming for that exam in a few spare minutes between classes.  You probably also remember feeling a little pride after doing rather well on the exam.   Let’s face it, flashcards work.  But why?  Are they really a good way to learn, or are they just for brute-force memorization that will be soon forgotten after the test?

The answer depends on what you are trying to learn. Flashcards are tremendously effective at a certain type of learning.  When you need to fill your head with bite-sized pieces of factual information like historical events or vocabulary words, nothing comes close to flashcards.  Why?  Here are a few reasons:

  1. Access: Flashcards are cheap, portable, and easy to use. No other educational tool provides the same value for the money, or the same level of accessibility. Not textbooks, software programs, classes, or audio books.
  2. Repetition: For memorization, repetition is essential. Flashcards also enable distributed practice, spreading out the study sessions to refresh the information at appropriate intervals to make sure it sticks. Cramming at the last minute before a test may get you through with a decent mark, however you will quickly lose what you learned. Periodic repetition is the only way to get the material to stick, and the better you know the material, the longer you can go between sessions.
  3. Practice testing: When you guess an answer and check whether it was correct, you are utilizing “metacognition”. You are assessing and reflecting upon how well you know the information. Research shows this kind of self-evaluation can promote long term retention.
  4. Active recall: When you look at a flashcard and try to remember the answer, you are engaging in active recall. Attempting to recall information greatly increases how well you will remember it again in the future, without any assistance from contextual clues. Repetition enhances this effect.
  5. Absence of context: The information is completely isolated, so you won’t be encumbered by context. For foreign language learning, you need not know anything about a language before using flashcards to build a foundation of useful words and proper pronunciation. Randomizing the order of the flashcards further helps to remove any contextual dependencies, such as remembering one vocabulary word because it always comes after another. When you hear these words spoken later, they will essentially be in random order, so it’s important to practice in random order as well since this is similar to the actual skill.
  6. Selective study: Flashcards can usually be sorted or pruned based on how well you know the information, allowing you to focus on the information you don’t know so well, and not wasting time and energy on information you already know. This ability to customize the study sessions can help optimize learning. Focusing on the more challenging flashcards helps to keep the learner engaged and in a state of active learning.
  7. Right Brain Learning: The absence of context allows flashcards to quickly imprint information using the right side of the brain which doesn’t scrutinize or resist new information the way the left brain does. The left brain is very good at making sense of what you already know, but it can get in the way of learning unfamiliar material like a new language. It tries to match the new patterns to ones your brain already knows, which can slow absorption and lead to poor results, like incorrect pronunciation. The right brain is amazing at learning fragments of information. Absorption and long-term retention are enhanced by utilizing images, sounds, or emotions which appeal to the right brain. Dragonfly Language Video Flashcards utilizes pictures, audio, and text for optimal learning.

Flashcards seem to be ideally suited for learning foreign language vocabulary. And by engaging the right-brain, the information will stay in your long term memory, and it won’t even seem like work.  So what’s the downside?  Well, you won’t learn a language.  You will learn words, lots and lots of words, but you can’t use them without getting your left brain into the game.  But much of learning a language is simply remembering all the words, and you simply can’t do this with left-brain techniques like reading a textbook.  The flashcards are fast-tracking your arsenal of words, so when you do know how to construct a sentence, you already have some words to call upon.  And with Dragonfly Language, it’s not just a few words, it’s over 1400 words.  That’s enough to read over 76% of an average written text!

In our Video Flashcards, we tried to preserve most of the advantages of traditional flashcards. The lessons review the words four times in three different orders. The quiz section allows you to test your memory (active recall), and the included booklet allows you to check your answers (metacognition). However there are some tradeoffs.  One disadvantage is you will need a mobile device to review them on-the-go, which will be harder than pulling a stack of cards out of a pocket.  Also you can’t sort the cards into stacks based on how well you know the words.  But the advantage is that you can leverage right-brain learning with the crisp stunning pictures and professional voice talents.  Another bonus is that you will think you are just watching TV, you won’t even realize you are learning.  This makes it easy to turn on for younger learners and homeschoolers.

Flashcards may seem antiquated and mundane, but sometimes a simple approach works best. They can be an incredibly powerful tool, and nothing beats Dragonfly Language Video Flashcards for teaching foreign language vocabulary.

Tips for Teaching a Foreign Language at Home

Getting Started

  • In choosing a language, motivation is crucial. Ideally you should teach a language you have some familiarity with. Otherwise find a language that the student is passionate about, as this will help them stay with it. Also consider a language with lots of resources available, like Spanish or French. It may be better to avoid Latin since has no benefits for travel, is nearly impossible to practice in conversation, and is not accepted by some colleges for foreign language requirements.
  • Use a homeschool curriculum that assumes you know nothing. Even if you already know the language, it will provide better resources for teaching a new student. Textbooks are typically written for teachers who know the language, so if you are using a textbook you will want to supplement with other resources.

Making Time

  • Teaching or learning a new language takes time and commitment, so make it a priority. If your routine is structured, block off time in the daily schedule. If your schedule is full, consider what you might sacrifice in order to make time for it.
  • Every day should include some practice, even weekends. The brain can quickly forget new information if it goes unused, so you need to minimize the gaps between sessions. The frequency is more important than the time spent. Just 15 minutes a day is enough to keep the information relevant. Almost any curriculum can be successful with daily practice.
  • Don’t restrict sessions to a single block of time. If possible, revisit the subject several times per day. Consider incorporating the language into other homeschooling subjects, or activities like meal times or trips to the store.
  • Make it a habit. Establish a trigger that you can’t miss, like always right after lunch. Or associate learning sessions with a small reward like cookies, and make cookies and foreign language a daily treat.

Ensuring Success

  • Favor right-brain methods early on, using sounds, images and hands-on activities. Listen to native speakers as much as possible, and avoid textbooks. The right brain will accept this new input much better than the left brain, which can feel threatened by the strange information. This will help the student feel comfortable and confident, and help them believe they can actually learn the language. This will also form intuitive relationships between the words and their meanings, avoiding the cumbersome process of “translating” which can actually prevent fluency. Later on you can vary the activities to utilize both sides of the brain together.
  • Make mistakes. Practicing speaking right away, there is no need to wait until the student becomes comfortable. It doesn’t have to be correct, making mistakes is all part of the learning process.
  • Test frequently to reinforce the lessons. This should be a natural part of every learning session. Testing promotes active recall which helps to cement what was learned. Testing should be similar to the exercises the student is accustomed to doing, for example if the student learned vocabulary with flashcards, use flashcards to test their knowledge.

Teaching Techniques

  • Remember that lessons should cover speaking, listening, writing, and culture. Cover as many of these as possible each day.
  • Make learning fun with books, movies, video games, apps, social media, and travel. Associating the language with fun and everyday activities will help the student build positive associations, and want to continue learning.
  • Label household items with their foreign language names. Have the students say the names as they walk through the house. Take down the labels when they have mastered the words, and put up new ones.
  • Use audio recordings of native speakers to ensure good pronunciation. The student will be imitating spoken examples, so it would be best to use a variety of examples, both male and female. Have them repeat what they hear. Dragonfly flashcards leave plenty of time for the listener to repeat. Consider recording the student speaking and play it back for them.
  • Use mnemonic devices to help the student remember words they are struggling with. Mnemonics are commonly used for foreign language acquisition because there is so much memorization. For example you can help the student conjure up mental images like a foot stepping in a pie, which will help them remember the Spanish “pie” means “foot”. The sillier it is, the easier it is to remember. However use this technique sparingly since it is not a direct connection and can slow down the learning process.
  • Practice with native speakers whenever possible. Find a local coach or a conversation buddy who can practice with them and correct their mistakes. It’s even better if they don’t speak English! Invite the person to dinner.
  • Travel! Being immersed in their language and culture makes the language relevant and personal, and can be a long term motivation for the student to become fully proficient.

Keep Your Resolutions by Making Habits

Have you ever been driving to the mall, lost in thought, only to realize that you were making all the usual turns to go to work?  I personally enjoy blaming the car for this, but obviously, our daily habit of driving to work is deeply entrenched in our minds.   When I say “deeply entrenched,” I am speaking literally.  The basal ganglia resides deep in our brains and controls automatic behaviors, like habits.  While we might not give much thought to our daily habits, they can have enormous effects on our lives.  Five minutes of strength training every day can build large muscles.  Saving $20 a week comes to over $1,000 of savings in a year.

We think of habits as things that we make ourselves do, but they are so much more than that.  Charles Duhigg explored the topic of habits in his book, “The Power of Habit.”  Our habits are made up of three parts:  a cue, an action, and a reward.   For example, I might notice that it is 5:00 pm.  This is my cue to start cooking dinner.  I take action by making dinner.   I am rewarded with delicious food for my family and if I’m lucky, I might get praise.  “Mmm, this is good, mom!”   This daily habit of cooking dinner has large implications in my life.  Cooking at home means that my family is healthier, we save money by not dining out, and I am setting a good example for my kids.

Habits can be powerful tools for getting what you want, but if your actions don’t have cues and rewards, your habits may not stick.  Let’s say that you want to build your French vocabulary this year.  You have decided that you are going to spend 16 minutes every day watching two Dragonfly Video Flashcard lessons.  This goes well for a couple of days, but then you forget to watch the lessons.  You are missing a cue.  Think of something that you already have a habit of doing.   Maybe you have a daily afternoon snack.  Link your foreign language building to your snack.  Put the DVD next to the bag of pretzels.   After a week of doing this, you’ll come to think of snack time as snack and lesson time.  Boom!  Cue accomplished.

Keeping a habit going also depends on a reward.   It doesn’t have to be a big reward.  Just the feeling of accomplishment can be enough of a reward for most people.  If you are struggling with flagging enthusiasm, you can deliberately increase your reward after a task.  You need to figure out what works for you.

Popular culture has theorized that doing a habit for 30 days is enough to make it “stick.”  Whether this is scientifically accurate is questionable, but the larger message is clear:  Make a habit with cues and rewards and stick with it until you no longer have to think about it.  Now, your task is this:   What do you want this year?   What are your resolutions?   What habits can you build to make them happen?

Enhance Quality Of Life with a Second Language

In the past several years, research has proven that children who are introduced to additional languages early in their development will have better cognitive, memory, and listening skills. Further studies indicate a direct correlation between foreign language knowledge and high SAT scores.  There is also research indicating that speaking one or more foreign languages can boost career options, contribute to a higher standard of living, and even help prevent dementia later in life. Read more

happy kids study spanish

Top 5 Reasons Why Children Benefit From Learning a Foreign Language

Recent studies have shown that learning a second language while still young can prove to be a great investment in a person’s life. Here are just 5 of the benefits that knowing multiple languages can bring:

  1. Knowing a foreign language boosts a child’s reading and comprehension skills
    Every parent and educator knows the importance of a child having good reading skills. Having this solid foundation makes learning every subject much easier for a student. Foreign language study utilizes different learning centers of the brain and therefore increases a child’s ability to comprehend and process more and different information.
  2. Learning a foreign language increases attention span
    Because the brain is processing multiple words and meanings across different languages, the student develops the capability of paying closer attention to distinguish the ideas and conversation. Focusing closer on these details then becomes useful in many areas of the student’s life.
  3. Knowing a foreign language can lead to better listening skills
    Again, because the brain wants more information to comprehend conversation details across multiple languages, the student will listen closer to the distinctions in words and meaning. By default, this becomes a handy skill in all other areas of life and learning.
  4. Knowledge of a foreign language can help keep dementia and Alzheimer’s at bay later in life
    Studies show that adults who speak two or more languages are less likely to see symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s later in life and those that do develop symptoms, develop them later in life.
  5. Understanding other languages can improve English skills
    Knowing multiple languages helps the student become aware of how each language formulates sentences, uses grammar, and distinguishes meaning. This helps increase the student’s awareness and use of the English language verbally and when writing.

Read more