Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Windows, Rubber Bands, and Neurosculpting

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

Recently I attended a professional development session offered by renowned educator and educational psychologist, Dr. Jo Ann Deak. Among many other interesting things, Dr. Deak spoke about the brain’s physiognomy and how it relates to language learning. It was a fascinating session; I learned some new things and found some of my long-held beliefs upheld by current research. (I just love it when both of these things come out of the same professional development session. Don’t you?)


According to Dr. Deak, everyone is born with about one hundred billion “short, skinny and naked” neurons in their brain. James Zull, in The Art of Changing the Brain, likens these neurons to a “leafless tree in an Ohio winter” because apparently that’s what they look like under a microscope. These neurons become robust at different times. This means that there are optimal time periods for certain kinds of brain development. For instance, the judgement centers of our brains aren’t fully formed until we are in our 40s. So, the window for the growth and expansion of the neurons in the part of our brains that controls the judgements we make is open until we are almost middle aged.

Dr. Deak went on further to say that if we use our brains during these timed windows of development, it is much easier in the future to continue changing this part of the brain even after the window has snapped shut. The opposite is also true. If we don’t use a particular part of our brain while the window is open, it is much harder and much more frustrating when we try to learn something after the window has closed.

So, what is this magical open-window time for second language acquisition? Sadly, (oh, so terribly sadly) the window during which time the brain most easily learns a second (or third, etc.) language closes at eight years old. Eight years old! That means that children who are exposed to a language (research suggests that it has to be a live person interacting with them; a video or Skype session just won’t do the trick) will have a much easier time learning that language even as an adult, while a person who has never been exposed to the language will have greater difficulty becoming a user of that language as an adult.

That rings true to me because, as I child I was often surrounded by Russian. My grandparents spoke little English and my mother tried to teach my sister and I basic vocabulary and songs. When I lived in Russia years later, I found the language very easy to pick up, and even without the benefit of formal classes, I was fluent within a matter of months. However, I didn’t start learning French until I was 11 years old. Those of you who follow this blog know of my struggles and frustrations learning French even though I have been living in Belgium for more than four years. What a difference childhood exposure to a language makes!

Rubber Bands

You may be reading this and thinking, “Hold on! That can’t be true. After all, I learned Arabic as an adult without prior exposure and with little trouble at all.” To this, Dr. Deak would respond by holding up two rubber bands, one short and thin and one long and thick. I am a short, thin rubber band and you, the reader who learned Arabic in three months by listening to CDs as you commuted, are a long, thick rubber band.

Dr. Deak pointed out that when we are born, our neurons (those short, skinny, naked trees) are dispersed differently in different people’s brains. In other words, we are all good at different things. I am a natural born organizer. I love looking at a mess and figuring out a way to make a neat, color-coded filing system out of it. My rubber band for organization must be pretty thick and long. However, my rubber band for second language acquisition is probably pretty short and thin, unlike the person who can learn Arabic in a short time and with minimal effort.

This does not mean that I am destined never to learn another language. I can, with effort and time, stretch my rubber band to a great length. Likewise, if the “natural” language learner is never given the opportunity to study another language, he/she will never develop that part of his/her brain and his/her rubber band will remain unstretched. However, the minute that person pops the CD into the car stereo, his/her potential will be much greater than mine.


The most exciting thing I took from Dr. Deak’s talk was the fact that, as teachers, we are actually changing the way the brain looks. We are helping those skinny, naked trees grow and connect with other trees, literally changing the shape of the brain. Our classes might be composed of students who had exposure to English at an early age or students who never heard an English sentence before they walked in the door. Our students might have long, thick language rubber bands, or they might have long, thick sports rubber bands instead. The bottom line is that we need to offer both exposure to English, no matter what the age of students may be, and the opportunity for stretching their rubber bands, no matter what size they may be.

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