The Neurobiological Factors in Second Language Learning and Acquisition

Scientific Essay, 2011

72 Pages




2. Second Language Learning and Acquisition

3. Theories of second language acquisition
3.1. The Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis
3.2. The Monitor Hypothesis
3.3. The Natural Order Hypothesis
3.4. The Input Hypothesis
3.5. The Affective Filter Hypothesis
3.6. A Final Point on Grammar
3.7. Summary of the theories

4. The biology of acquisition: learning and memorizing
4.1. Definition
4.2. Learning our native language
4.3. Second language acquisition and the cerebral functions
4.4. Varieties of Remembering
4.5. Habit memory and language learning
4.7 Recollective (episodic) memory and language learning

5. Decoding the language: how do we use the acquired new language?
5.1. Is our brain a computer?
5.2. Left and right hemispheres: does it count in the LL process?
5.3. From seeing, hearing, recognizing and learning the language
5.4 Stages after recognizing

6. Problems in SLA, the damage of neurobiological factors
6.1 Definition of aphasia and the types of this disease
6.2 Aphasia and language learning as well as language acquisition

7. SLA theories, neurobiological differences in every teaching practice
7.1 Result and findings of our research

8. Conclusion


It is obvious that second language acquisition is a very inevitable phenomenon in language learning procedure, hence there is a whole library of books dealing with SLA. Contemporary findings (Pléh, 2010) have also showed that LA is one of the most important processes in our life, determining the whole procedure of language learning, not only in the case of second language, but also in the case of our mother tongue. Moreover, the whole process includes memorizing things, conceptualization, connecting cognitive information and eventual accuracy in the use of language. Interestingly enough, contemporary findings have also proved (Deb K. Roy et al., 2002) that first language acquisition begins even before the birth of the child, which means that the adaptation to the new circumstances and verbal communication starts in the mother’s uterus. These new researches and our devotion to medical disciplines1 have made us compose an essay on the biological factors of Second Language Acquisition. No doubt, biological and neurobiological factors are very severely important parts of LA procedures, however, they are not really put into the focus of linguistic experts. The reason for this might be traced in several things: there are some (Birnbaum, 1996) who think that biological factors are not so important, since linguistic experts are supposed to be dealing with the technical and mechanical factors of language acquisition (e.g. how we learn the things, what methodology or approaches we need to master the language properly, etc.). Others note (Clark, 1997) that even when biological factors are very determining, linguistics are obliged to stick to the main stream of language acquisition, which is - beyond any questions - not a biological but a psychological factor. However, there are a lot more others who support biological factors and dealing with neurobiology deeply in contemporary writings (Caplan, 1976) These opinions all encouraged us to write an essay on biological factors, emphasizing that biology and neurobiology are very important in Language Acquisition. Furthermore, in accordance with the new scientific findings and surveys, we were really given the suggestion that there is a great need for dealing and utilizing neurobiology in the frame of linguistics. Therefore, we would have intended to prove that these factors are even more than worth being dealt with; consequently we will get to the conclusion that without these factors, the conceptual and cognitive productions of any languages are not possible.

Neurobiology is not the only medical term covering and interfering language learning and memorizing procedure. Certainly, there are many other phenomena and factors in this field. Nevertheless, it is highly influenced by genetics and genetic features, congenital transference of human features and abilities. Even more, the consequences of pregnancy and the circumstances of the delivery are also determining. These all lead to psychological categories and consequences (e.g. the development of human personality and behavior) which will later directly influence language learning procedure and acquisition. Therefore, the root of all psychological factors and utterances must be traced in neurobiological factors. It means - no doubt - that linguistic experts cannot get apart from this highly important phenomenon at all. On the other hand, we cannot apart from dealing with brain damage that might lead to defects in memory and language production. Throughout our experiences at the health services, we collected some interesting cases when the patients had cerebral stroke in which those lobes were damaged where language production, learning and acquisition take place. Therefore, in the last but one chapter of our essay we can mention some interesting cases, possibilities and opportunities to improve the cerebral areas in order that the patient could get the previous knowledge back. Also, it is very interesting to deal with because of the fact that some decades earlier experts thought that cerebral damage and neurons cannot recover (Bence, 1999). However, in the past few years, scientists discovered that the tact areas could be improved, since the neurons are able to recover from the shock that a brain stroke (hemorrhage, embolic, etc) had caused. That might be the reason why dealing with neurobiology in the case of language learning and acquisition seem to be so interesting and important. Via this work, we do, therefore, devote ourselves to introducing the key principles of language acquisition, the biology and the consequent psychology of learning and acquiring and as a final deal, we would like to present some interesting cases in which these processes were interrupted, inhibited and/or damaged. So dear reader, stay tuned.

2. Second Language Learning and Acquisition

Language acquisition is very similar to the process which children use in order to acquire first and second languages. It requires meaningful interactions in the target language in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding. It often happens in real life communications and real life situations. Language acquisition is therefore a procedure in which the proper knowledge is acquired independently or - we could say - instinctively. Even when error correction and explicit teaching of rules are not relevant to language acquisition (Brown and Hanlon, 1973), native speakers can modify their utterances in order to clarify what they are about to say or to help listeners understand it. These modifications, therefore, are thought to help the acquisition process, which - as we have already noted - happens spontaneously. It means that language acquisition is a kind of end product we have to get at the end of the learning procedure. Moreover, when learning a second language, we have got to get to the point that remembering words and phrases do not take place on the ground of previous memorization, but on the ground of an instinct automatic recall. It means that we have to get to the level when learning the language is not demonstrated and achieved by mugging up words and memorizing things wittingly. In other words, when anyone asks us where we get a word from, the proper answer would be that we do not remember. If it is so, it might be supposed that the words came from unwittingly acquired knowledge, which is actually language acquisition.

3. Theories of second language acquisition

There are many theories in the field of SLA. They are all trying to prove how the process is going on and how it leads to acquisition finally. The key expert in SLA theories is professor Steven Krashen from the USA. We have opted for his theories, which are, without any doubt, the closes to our theme. According to Krashen, there are five main components of his theory. Each of the components relates to different aspects of the language learning procedures: the Acquisition Learning Hypothesis, the Monitor Hypothesis, the Natural Order Hypothesis, the Input Hypothesis, the Affective Filter Hypothesis (Krashen, 1998).

3.1. The Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis

This hypothesis actually combines two basic theories of how individuals learn languages. Krashen concludes that there are two systems of language acquisition which are independent, however, absolutely related: the acquired system and the learned system (Krashen, 1981). The acquired system relates to the unconscious aspect of language acquisition. When people learn their first language by speaking the language naturally in daily interaction with others who speak their native language, this acquired system is at work. It means that in this system, speakers are less concerned with the structure of their utterances than with the act of communicating meaning. In fact, Krashen privileges the acquired system over the learned system. Moreover, the learned system relates to formal instruction where students engage in formal study to acquire knowledge about the target language. For example, studying the rules of syntax is part of the learned system (Wiley, 1978).

3.2. The Monitor Hypothesis

The monitor hypothesis seeks to show how the acquired system is affected by the learned system. Just when second language learners monitor their speech, they are applying their understanding of learned grammar to form, plan, and initiate their communication. This action can only happen when speakers have abundant time to think about the form and structure of their sentences. Furthermore, the amount of monitoring occurs on a continuum. It suggests that some language learners over-monitor and some use very little of their learned knowledge and are said to under-monitor. Ideally, speakers point out a balance and monitor at a level where they use their knowledge, which, however, does not succeed always (Tucker, 1977).

3.3. The Natural Order Hypothesis

This hypothesis assumes that there is a natural order to the way second language learners acquire their target language (Krashen, 1998). Research suggests that this natural order seems to be characterized by age, the learner's native language, the target language, and the conditions beneath which the second language is being learned. Normally, the order that the learners follow has four steps:

a., They produce single WORDS.
b., They string words together based on MEANING and not syntax.
c., They begin to identify elements that begin and end SENTENCES.
d., They begin to identify different elements within sentences and can rearrange them to produce QUESTIONS.

3.4. The Input Hypothesis

This hypothesis seeks to explain how second languages are acquired. In its most basic form, the input hypothesis argues that learners progress along the natural order only when they encounter second language input that is one step beyond where they are in the natural order (Rivers, 1972). Therefore, if a learner is at step one from the above list, they will only proceed along the natural order when they encounter input that is at the second step.

3.5. The Affective Filter Hypothesis

This hypothesis describes external factors that can act as a filter that impedes acquisition. These factors include motivation, self-confidence, and anxiety. For example, if a learner has very low motivation, very low self-confidence, and a high level of anxiety, the affective filter comes into place and inhibits the learner from acquiring the new language (Krashen, 1998). Students who are motivated, confident, and relaxed about learning the target language have much more success acquiring a second language than those who are trying to learn with the affective filter in place.

3.6. A Final Point on Grammar

According to second language acquisition theory, the role of grammar in language acquisition is useful only when the learner is interested in learning grammar. However, Krashen argues that studying grammar equates to language appreciation and does not positively influence language acquisition.

3.7. Summary of the theories

In our practice we have carried out most of the approaches and theories of LA, consequently, we do consider that second language acquisition is the end of an unconscious as well as conscious process by which adequate active language knowledge is obtained. We cannot state that acquisition is something that goes unwittingly, it is a phenomenon that automatically happens to anyone whatever he/she does.

Even when there are many methods2 (or approaches) - we would rather call them enterprises - focusing on early stage learning, we would question the effectiveness of these trials. Therefore, acquisition does never happen without any purposes. There should always be a reason, at least the purpose of the learners to study. In a way, we are to argue Krashen since he separates acquisition and deliberate learning categorically. We say, however, that learning procedure is important for the final output of production, which is actually leading to acquisition. In addition, we should define production and acquisition. Are these the same or very similar things to each other? We would state that production of the language is of a more complex thing than acquisition, however, production cannot exist without acquisition, therefore the two are built upon each other.

4. The biology of acquisition: learning and memorizing

4.1. Definition

Memory is one of the cognitive capacities by which we recall information and reconstruct past experiences, usually bound for present purposes. Memory is one of the most important ways by which our histories are related to our current actions and experiences. Memory seems to be a source and resource of knowledge (Gallloway, 2009). We remember experiences and events which are not happening now, therefore memory differs from perception. We remember events which really happened - if there was not a brain damage - so memory is not like mere imagination. Biologically, there is a long procedure taking place in our brain while an event is inscribed into the hemisphere.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 1. The human brain3

The internal parts are used to store images and sound and to get memorized and inscribed. The core of memorizing things is in cortical centers, whereas impulses and inputs are taken from different other parts, temporal lobes and well as the frontal lobe. Remembering is often suffused with emotion, and is closely involved in both extended affective states such as love and grief, and socially significant practices such as promising and commemorating (Ramscar,

2007). Getting back information from the storing hemispheres is another way of perceiving things. Memorizing is also essential to make decisions both individually and collectively. Also, memorization is inevitable for learning languages as well. You have to memorize phrases and structures first in order to be capable of recalling them later. Moreover, it is connected in obscure ways with dreaming. Some memories are shaped by language, others by imagery. In addition, much of moral and social life depends on memory as well (Bogen, 1989). When talking about memorizing, we have to conduct many other factors. Memorizing takes place on a higher perceptivity in human brain. Animals can memorize things to, however, they cannot call back audio-lingual events. They can only memorize the pitch or song of the speech and then they carry out the orders we wish them to do. However, animal brain is not capable of reacting properly and is not able to create verbal communication. For instance, dogs can memorize many signs and can react to different situations instinctly.

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Figure 2.. The dog’s brain4

Dogs do not use their cortexes to retain information and recall the memories. Their use their pine glands and reticular formations to react the memorized motions, motifs and the pitch of speech they have heard many times. Human brain, on the other hand, is capable of thinking cognitively, which means it is not only processes but also analyzes and responds to certain inputs. Moreover, the inputs are recorded in the cortex and become memory. Depending on the way of input (audio, visual, senses, touches, etc) it is recorded on the exact cerebral cortical area. Audio inputs, for instance, are recorded in the temporal lobe mainly, whereas visual inputs are stored in the occipital regions. Moreover, in order to fill information with emotions, ideas and reactions, humans use their limbic system in their frontal lobe as well, therefore there is a strict connection between cortical centers all around the brain.

The smallest equipment for transmitting information is the neurons, which get the information from the sensatory organs, and then transmit it to the exact brain area.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Figure 3. Neurons5

Neurons are responsible for sensing and transmitting information. When learning a new language, thousands of millions neurons are activated to inscribe the message that is to be transmitted and stored. Throughout this process the information is obtained, transmitted and stored in different areas of our brain. If these certain neurons are block in a way, the obtaining, transmission or storing might be blocked as well. We have carried out an experiment with our students how different blockages affect the learning procedure. The results and findings will be presented later. In order to understand the results and findings or our study, one has to learn the certain biological processes. As learning is a biological process, it is based on biochemical reactions the create special proteins, so called marker proteins, to modify the electrical currents in the brain in a way that produces correct thoughts or saves information, facts or other sensual impressions we get through the sensory system (McDonald, 2010). However, not only the brain as a whole is participated. The neo-cortex does learn quite slowly, whereas the brain stem is about 10 times faster in doing things, but, other than the neo cortex, it can not learn in the formal way we train our neo- cortex. The brain stem learns from exercises. (Carroll,1978). For instance, when we start to learn driving, first of all we try to memorize all the handles we have to use for gas, clutch, gears, blinking and whatever else is required to drive a car properly. While we are trying to learn this, we use the neo-cortex and it takes us some hours of training to get better.

4.2. Learning our native language

Interestingly enough, learning a second language is a very complex process and still first language acquisition takes place in a very different way. It is because when we first learn our first langue, first we have only audio effects, since we cannot see the written form of the words, structures and texts. We first get the inputs through our hearing which goes into the temporal area (lobus temporalis) where the data are processed. When a kid starts learning his or her mother tongue, he first listens to the voice and sound and try to decode them. Decoding takes place in another area, so after the first input the information is transferred to the sensory association area which is situated right above the temporal area, called the parietal area (lobus partietalis). In this area all the information concerning the first language is gathered together, including eye movements, intonations, mimic, gestures and visual information as well. Thus, we could say that learning our first languages does not only rely on visual and audio effects (which we are supposed to concentrate on when learning a second language), but also on other non-audio and non-visual happenings. Moreover, we cannot get apart from the semi-subjective factors either. We mean that the touch of the baby’s mother, the feelings that she expresses towards her little infant, the kisses and care the small baby experiences might all be processed through the language learning procedure. Therefore, we could say that not only the exact areas are responsible for our first language acquisition, but also the peripheral areas such as the limbic system, the visual association area, auditory and visual cortex (Cross, 1987). The following chart would intend to sum up the way of neuro-information Even though first language acquisition is not a conscious learning procedure, we can easily observe that there are many unconscious audio-visual inputs. However, second language acquisition - if not acquiring it from very early childhood - is the result of a conscious procedure. Although we are aware of the fact that LA is an unconscious happening, we cannot get apart from the fact that there is always a programmed procedure beforehand (Masur, 1995).

illustration not visible in this excerpt

4.3. Second language acquisition and the cerebral functions

The basics for the understanding of learning processes are much more complicated. Knowing these basics might enable us to find ways to teach and learn in a brain fitted way. Therefore, when dealing with students we also have to consider the actual stage of development the student has reached in his brain. It means LA is not only determined by the ways of methods and processes we use beforehand, but it is also affected by the improvement of the brain and brain cells. In addition, this stage does not always correlate with the real age and very often we are supposed to deal with disadvantageous misconceptions on the psychological side and also with real underdeveloped structures in the brain on the biological side (Masur, 1995). However, there is not only the brain. It means that we need to learn with the whole body, hence the more and more we know about body learning and all the learning processes (including the cellular reactions and usage of our body as well) the more we can use it even at school in order to help students to solve their problems. In addition, it is also the part of this essay to show the different discrepancies and problems in language acquisition influencing the whole procedure (Pléh, 2010). Although learning different languages seems to be happening in the same way, it is not true for the native language and other non-native languages which are acquired. As it has already been shown, learning our mother tongue occurs through different channels such as audio-visual and other physical inputs, whereas learning a second language occurs without other non-linguistic channels. On the other hand, the learning process is always conscious regardless of the required acquisition. We mean that learning a second language is not happening in an instinct way, therefore there is always a desire behind to master the foreign language. In most of the cases this desire is in the target person himself/herself, however, there are many cases when there is a forcing background to make the target person learn and master the language. In addition, this forcing background is not always people either. There is often a need for a language certificate so that students can get a diploma or a better job. Although the purpose of this thesis is not to measure the motivations of students for learning new languages, it would be extremely beneficial to compare the features of acquisition gotten from different motivation. We should, nevertheless, divide the factors into two categories first: intrinsic factors which we consider biological in our essay, and extrinsic ones which we call circumstances. What could be the extrinsic factors influencing the process of foreign language learning and language acquisition? Hereby, however, we would intend to deal with intrinsic factors such as brain functions, psychological orders or disorders, sense of learning (or not learning) languages.


1 The writer of this essay is currently working part-time as a paramedic for one of the Hungarian Ambulance services, and has a medical qualification as well.

2 For instance: Helen Doron schools (

3 www. n_major_internal_parts.jpg

4 www.


Excerpt out of 72 pages


The Neurobiological Factors in Second Language Learning and Acquisition
University of Debrecen  (Regnum-M Educational Co. / University of Debrecen)
English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics
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ISBN (Book)
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neurobiological, factors, second, language, learning, acquisition
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Janos Talaber (Author), 2011, The Neurobiological Factors in Second Language Learning and Acquisition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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