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Volume 27, Number 6
November/December 2011

When Learning Languages, Motivation Matters Most

An Interview with Bruno della Chiesa


Bruno della Chiesa is a senior analyst at the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and a visiting lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In 2007, he began a new project, Globalisation and Linguistic Competencies, to explore the reasons why students in some schools and countries are more likely to better learn new languages. Della Chiesa is fluent in French, English, German, and Spanish. Recently, he spoke with Harvard Education Letter editor Nancy Walser about non-native language learning.

Why is it important for students, especially native English speakers, to learn another language?
It’s important for many reasons. To be able to communicate with people who don’t speak your mother tongue (as a tourist or in international professional activities) and to increase your competitiveness in the labor market—these are the best-known reasons, and the most obvious ones. And recent work has shown that in terms of cognitive capacities, the “collateral benefits” of becoming bi- or plurilingual are not to be neglected. Moreover, there is also the crucial benefit of developing a sense of diversity in unity that you can’t possibly access that well with any other exercise.

When you start to develop a fluency in a second or third language, you suddenly become aware of the diversity of how people think. An example from France is the word communauté. It means “community” in English, and in the States it has a positive connotation. In France, it’s exactly the opposite; it has a very negative meaning at societal and political levels that comes from the French Revolution. As a French citizen, you are supposed to consider yourself a French citizen first rather than a member of a smaller group, especially when “rules of conduct” between groups one belongs to collide.

At some stage when students are learning a language, they realize that people who speak in another language also tend to think somewhat differently—and that they have a different doxa [common belief]. First they see the differences. However, there are also universals and commonalities, and this is equally important, if not more. Every language has a way to express the past, present, and future and a way to express happiness and sorrow, for example. So learning another language is also about developing an awareness of diversity and unity—you learn a bit better who you are, what cultural doxa underlies your language group, and also what it means to be a human being.

You have studied the connections between neuroscience and language learning. What does recent research indicate is the best way to learn a non-native language?
There is really no one best way. The only thing that neuroscience has been able to show definitively so far is that basically when learning another language, the earlier the better. This, of course, confirms intuitive knowledge or daily observation. Nothing new under the sun, except that now we also know why. Still, it’s never too late. There is this notion of brain plasticity: The human brain learns constantly, and that means you can learn a language at any age.

But you don’t learn the same way if you are five as you do at 50. It becomes more difficult as you grow older, and takes more effort, but it’s doable. For all sorts of reasons, children learn languages more easily; they don’t really struggle. There are sensitive periods when the brain is primed for learning certain things. For instance, the best time to acquire “standard” phonetic ability is before puberty. This means that if you start to learn a new language after puberty, you are likely to keep a so-called “foreign accent.” You’ll struggle a lot to get rid of it, and you probably won’t manage. And, except for spies, who needs to sound like a native speaker anyway? The good news is, however, that for vocabulary learning, there do not seem to be sensitive periods.

Neuroscience also supports the importance of making the process of learning pleasurable. Learning associated with positive emotions activates the “reward systems” in the brain, which helps in terms of motivation and, hence, success. Students in many countries learn English through all sorts of ways, like listening to English-language songs and trying to understand the lyrics. Such activities should complement other, more traditional (and, to many, more boring) approaches also used in schools.

What should be the goal of foreign language instruction? Achieving fluency?
Honestly, if I had had only school English, I would be unable to have this discussion with you now. The educational systems I know of set unrealistic goals, like that at the end of the day students should be able to speak like a native speaker. That’s sheer nonsense. First of all, which native speaker are you talking about? There is no such thing as an archetypical native speaker to begin with, because of sociolinguistic differences between groups of native speakers. There is also a problem with the definition of “fluency,” which actually depends on what you want to do with a language. If you learn Mandarin Chinese, what is it you want to do with it? Find your way in Beijing as a tourist, or participate in philosophical discussions?

What would be a realistic goal is that at the end of the day, students feel like learning another language. Of course, in order for these goals not to be too minimal, students should be aware of the benefits and experience the pleasure of making progress. Since a successful learning process crucially depends on motivation, one of the first duties of our schools should be to make sure that learning is pleasurable for the learners. Language teachers could ask their students what it is they’d like to do, then choose among the suggestions and go for it—but using the target language.

The very first thing to do is to try to discover how the students perceive the culture attached to the language that they are learning. If I suspect that most of my students have a negative perception, I would try to reverse this perception by presenting the target culture in a positive light. You can be motivated to learn languages in general but not a specific language, because you don’t feel attracted to or you have a negative perception of the culture related to that particular language. After World War I and World War II, for example, the numbers of French and Germans learning the other’s language understandably plummeted.

What are the myths that people have about non-native language learning (NNLL)?
There are so many. I could write a complete book. But there are three that are the most dangerous ones.

One is “I’m not gifted for languages.” There is no such thing as a gift for languages! Everyone learns their mother tongue, and everyone is able to learn NNLs well too. The gift myth is too easy an excuse to justify any sort of failure. When people say, “I’m gifted in languages,” I generally don’t reply because anybody who is motivated enough can learn another language, and so I let them believe it. But when I hear “I’m not gifted for languages,” it infuriates me. The reason this myth is dangerous is because it’s demotivating for people labeled or self-labeled “not gifted.”

The second myth is “I’m too old to learn.” We know there is lifelong synaptic plasticity in the brain, which constantly reconfigures itself by playing with neuronal connections in response to stimuli—that’s the definition of learning at the neural level. Developing new synapses, reinforcing and weakening others, and even pruning those that have become useless—your brain is doing that all the time. A living brain continuously learns, languages as well as anything else. Only dead brains don’t learn.

The third myth is that there are “easy” languages and “difficult” languages, because, again, it entirely depends on the goal you set for yourself. If your goal is to publish an academic paper in Spanish—a language supposed to be easy, at least for Westerners—on 15th-century Spanish literature, as a non-native you’ll have to work very hard and for a very long time to get there. But if your goal is to acquire basic, survival Arabic or Japanese—languages supposed to be difficult—you can do it in a few days.

What about technology and online learning—can these help students learn another language?
Online learning is still in its infancy, especially as far as languages are concerned. If an online curriculum is motivating enough for people to learn more and more, that’s good. Watching movies can also help; with DVDs you can choose the language and whether you want subtitles or not. You can start with subtitles in your mother tongue, then move to subtitles in the original language, and then remove subtitles altogether. Teachers can supplement lessons with movies, music, YouTube, etc. Make it fun!

But we’ll always need teachers, because it’s all about communication. And motivation comes from this interaction. Teachers are dramatically needed to convey positive images of the target culture, or to try to correct the negative ones: confront stereotypes, make connections, and put things into perspective.

Many U.S. students often spend quite a bit of time in foreign language classes—especially in high school—and still have difficulty speaking another language besides English. Do you think this is a problem, and, if so, what are the solutions?
It certainly is a problem—and, by the way, not only in the U.S. It is also a growing problem in terms of competitiveness—both at individual and societal levels. I trace the roots of the problem to a collective lack of will. Every country I know of with some sort of collective superiority complex (often inherited from a history of colonialism, like France, Japan, the U.K., etc.) struggles with this. Solutions are extremely difficult to implement because they require a change of worldview: We are not better than others. This might take ages, but it is certainly possible to do it, provided there is a political will to do so.

Oftentimes, foreign language classes (along with art and music) are among the first programs to be cut when U.S. school districts run into budget problems.  Does this happen in other countries?

Yes, it does, but sometimes less so, and it above all depends on how much the countries view themselves as “superior.” Again, former colonial powers are more likely to cut their language programs than others. This is what Voltaire expressed when he wrote, with his inimitable irony, about French people being convinced that “without the adventure of the Tower of Babel, the whole world would have spoken French.” Two hundred and fifty years later, we still find this witty remark quite funny, because it is not yet completely out-of-date.

If you were to design an elementary or high school for optimal non-native language learning, what would it look like?
I would start a nursery school where kids are just surrounded by and immersed in different languages and cultures.

For Further Information

For Further Information

B. della Chiesa, J. Scott, and C. Hinton, eds. Languages in a Global World: Learning for Better Cultural Understanding. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2011.