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.

Our Memory and Sound

Have you ever listened to a familiar movie and found yourself compelled to spit out the next lines? Have you ever walked around with a song stuck in your head that you couldn’t seem to shake loose?  Perhaps you’ve spent the weekend with a friend with an accent and suddenly, you seem to be speaking with a bit of a British accent or a southern accent.  I can sing the opening theme song to my favorite childhood TV show word for word and I haven’t heard the song for at least 30 years.  I know people who memorized information for an upcoming exam by making a rap out of the test material.  Our brains are very receptive to sounds.  What makes sound so memorable? Read more