Two Adolescent Brain-Based Teaching Strategies in the Foreign Language Classroom
While I was a student at a community college in San Antonio, Texas, I took an Arabic language course. The professor, a native speaker from Jordan, spoke both Jordanian and Egyptian dialects. The class was made up of approximately 15 very motivated students (mostly aged 18 to 25) with most of my classmates learning Arabic to communicate with family and friends or because they were in the military.
From day one, our professor focused her lesson plans on teaching us how to write and read Arabic letters. Only about twenty percent of class time was used for listening to and imitating Arabic sounds and no time was dedicated to communication. A month into the course, one of the military students respectfully expressed his concern. “I am being shipped out to the Middle East at the end of the semester. I have to be able to speak, not write!” The professor said that writing and reading were the priority because “this is how you learn Arabic.”
Unfortunately, most language courses in the United States are based on this strategy. Writing, reading, grammar, and conjugations are the focus to the exclusion of communication. Even if she still chose to emphasize reading and writing in her lesson plan, the professor could have used the following brain-based strategies recommended by Sun Protection Outreach by Students (SPOTS) to nurture her students’ relationship with Arabic (2008).
Two Brain-Based Strategies
First, “the brain is social and requires interaction in order to develop properly” (SPOTS, 2008). This is most certainly the case for language. Language is inherently social; it was created in social settings, permanently affixed to its cultural roots. Social interaction boosts dopamine levels as Oxytocin is released to “elicit social reward” and promote further “prosocial behavior” (Hung et al., 2017) and “dopaminergic neurons play a critical role in learning” (Bogacz, 2020).
Rather than focusing on writing and reading in a sterile learning environment, our professor could have encouraged us to email pen pals in the Arabic-speaking community. In my American Sign Language (ASL) classes, I invite my students to Deaf community chat nights to give them native language exposure. I also invite members of the community to perform culturally- treasured ASL stories, Deaf poetry, or their personal accounts of growing up with or without sign. These socially-interactive activities ensure that my students know how inseparably connected language is to its cultural roots and the community who cherishes it.
Second, hand-in-hand with social interactive strategies is another of SPOTS’ brain-based strategies that “the addition of emotion can help students remember” (2008). One of the greatest missed opportunities in my class was that my professor did not utilize our plethora of rational and emotional reasons for learning her language. No force would have been necessary.
For her students who had family members or friends who spoke Arabic, she could have nurtured their desire to connect. For example, “Identify what you would want to tell your loved ones in Arabic.” At the end of the course, the students could invite these individuals to class in-person or virtually and express their gratitude. For her military students, she could have nurtured their desire to communicate. For example, “Identify three potential situations you may find themselves in and create situation-specific phrase lists to memorize by end of the course.” Even as a student I felt a sense of loss for what the course could have been. (Though, I am now grateful for the experience; it taught me what not to do as a language teacher!)
Aspects of the Strategy that Align with Adolescent Brain Research
The above two aspects of the strategy put forth by Sun Protection Outreach by Students (2008) seem to align with research on the adolescent brain. My Arabic class was mainly made up of 18 to 25 year olds so while our limbic systems were developed, the “pruning and myelination of [our] prefrontal cortex” was still slowly developing (Armstrong, 2017, p. 10).
First, our teacher could have capitalized on the fact that adolescent brains show a preference for interacting with their peers rather than authority figures (Armstrong, 2017, pp. 15-16). She could have encouraged “prosocial behavior” (Hung et al., 2017) by having us communicate with our fellow Arabic classmates as “potential positive social interactions offer a wide variety of rewarding stimuli for human beings” (Krach & Paulus & Bodden & Kircher, 2010). With language learning, I believe “the rewarding stimuli” are even more plentiful because language is born out of and nurtured in social interaction. Thus, not only is social interaction in the classroom natural for the adolescent brain, it is also natural for language acquisition.
One challenge for language teachers is how to create beneficial social learning experiences. Yes, a teacher can encourage students to interact with each other in class in their target language (in this case, Arabic), but the benefits are limited when their sole interaction is with other beginning speakers. However, this should not have been much of a challenge for our Arabic professor. Not only was she involved in the Arabic community in San Antonio, she had students in class with friends and family who spoke Arabic. Invitations to come speak, to participate in language games, to share their story, all could have given students opportunity to be exposed to the language in meaningful ways and associate with language examples. So while, yes, the adolescent brain craves interaction with their peers, in language acquisition there is a need for interaction with those who fluently speak the target language. (The perfect scenario would be interaction with fluent native speakers who are the same age as the students.)
Second, by introducing and connecting with the students’ emotional reasons behind learning Arabic, the teacher could have capitalized on the fact that the same area of the brain that processes emotion, the cingulate gyrus, also processes learning and memory (Armstrong, 2017, p. 10). Emotion “facilitates encoding and helps retrieval of information efficiently” (Tyng & Amin & Saad & Malik, 2017). While, yes, adolescents struggle with impulse control and setting priorities because the prefrontal cortexes may not have been fully developed yet, our limbic systems, including the hippocampus which plays a large role in successful long-term learning, were ready to be utilized in learning.
That said, there are limitations to the strategy of introducing emotion to learning. Research by Tyng et al (2017) makes clear that “the effects of emotion on learning and memory are not always univalent,” that “studies have reported that emotion either enhances or impairs learning and long-term memory (LTM) retention, depending on a range of factors.” Perhaps like flooding the gas tank, too much emotion inhibits a students’ brain to process information. For this reason, I have noticed that a student is rarely able to learn while in trauma response, in fight, flight, or freeze mode. In the case of the Arabic course, perhaps for some of my military classmates, learning Arabic through the context of future high-stress situations (such as hypothetical life-threatening scenarios) could have an impairing effect.
Nurturing positive social interaction and making use of emotions in our Arabic class would have significantly helped our ability to read, write, communicate, and connect in our new language. The strategies listed by SPOTS (2008) would have utilized our brains’ need for sensation, encouraged interaction with peers and language mentors, and the benefits of drawing upon our emotional rationales to encourage language acquisition.
Armstrong, T. (2017). The power of the adolescent brain: strategies for teaching middle and high school students. Hawker Brownlow Education. https://www.weareteachers.com/wp-content/uploads/ASCD-2-Book-Sample-PoweroftheAdolescentBrain.pdf
Hung, L. W., Neuner, S., Polepalli, J. S., Beier, K. T., Wright, M., Walsh, J. J., Lewis, E. M., Luo, L., Deisseroth, K., Dölen, G., & Malenka, R. C. (2017). Gating of social reward by oxytocin in the ventral tegmental area. Science (New York, N.Y.), 357(6358), 1406–1411. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aan4994
Krach, S., Paulus, F. M., Bodden, M., & Kircher, T. (2010). The rewarding nature of social interactions. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 4, 22. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2010.00022
Sun Protection Outreach by Students Training Manual (2008). The adolescent brain-Learning strategies & teaching tips. http://spots.wustl.edu/SPOTS%20manual%20Final/SPOTS%20Manual%204%20Learning%20Strategies.pdf
Tyng, C. M., Amin, H. U., Saad, M., & Malik, A. S. (2017). The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1454. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01454