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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.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


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.