Neurolinguistics and Multiculturalism for Language Instructors

Fundamental Knowledge for Language Acquisition

Textbook, 2014
117 Pages, Grade: 1



























For my beloved wife


Millennia ago, the rise of multilingualism had a sudden start. In the Bible book of Genesis eleven verses four to eight it describes how God confused the language of those in the city of Babel causing spontaneous unintelligibility between tribal groups and rise to various languages which over time developed into the vast array we possess today. Whether one is religiously inclined or not, the fact remains that multilingualism seems to be almost as old as mankind itself and while many are multilingual the subject itself especially in relation to the neural aspect is still for all intents and purposes a labyrinth which is yet to be explored.

To understand multilingualism in the neuro-linguistic aspect it is necessary to understand the definition of multilingualism and it is also beneficial to consider historical interactions between languages through the ages as well as the effect these have had on their users, society and would be learners thereof.

This book hopes to expose various points on this subject which in the manner of carefully placed brush strokes, aims to paint a clear picture for ease of understanding. What processes of the brain are under way when acquiring new languages? How can these processes be taken advantages of? How can these processes be exploited for learner benefit? Is it possible to create a more enjoyable learning atmosphere by using these natural processes? Can the application of these methods boost the learners’ confidence and thereby natural inclination to learn? These and similar questions will be analysed in order to make sense of this intense field of study.

Furthermore, albeit this subject is intense, it should not be misconstrued as being too complex or unsuitable for practical application. The book will address how to implement the scientific pedagogy techniques that relate to multilingualism and natural linguistic acquisition. A more detailed look at the mechanisms of linguistic acquisition will have far reaching beneficial effects, thereby affecting the way language is taught and boosting the natural rate of absorption and retention of a second language.

Turning a blind eye to new teaching methods is an attitude very much at home in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, needless to say it has no place in the mind of the modern teacher especially when supported by scientific evidence. This book will discuss potential benefits of moving with the times and the distinct difference this can make to the quality of learning and the quantity that can be retained. The results can speak for themselves.

Gaining insight into the multilingual and multicultural aspects of teaching and the workings of the student’s minds as well as how different languages are processed will be indispensable to the teacher in order reach heart and mind and inculcate language in a greater and more effect procedure. The one whom teaches others should instruct themselves too.


Clarifying the basics.

Every subject known to man has a foundation. Mathematics, science, the arts, sociology (the list goes on) all have foundations of varying concreteness. It should then, come as no surprise that language has more or less the same fundamental elements that form to create a foundation. Modern Neuro-linguistics has its start as a different but related field of study known as aphasiology which studies how language is affected after a subject has suffered from brain trauma. This early form of study helped to pave the way for accurately identifying the regions of the brain that are directly and indirectly activated when language is in use. Two main portions of the brain are in simultaneous use when language processes occur. These areas are known as Broca’s and Wernicke areas respectively. (Sakai p.167)

Working in unison (it must be remembered that other areas also come into use although these are the main) the Broca’s area and the Wernicke area’s perform several vital functions. As science has progressed there has been much debate as to the exact functions taken on by each of these two regions. It appears that no complete singular function is carried out exclusively by either of these areas and these areas may well activate other regions of the brain as need be. Broca’s area in connection with recent findings seems to hold syntactic processing dominance while Wernicke’s area deals to a higher degree with semantics. (Sakai p.168)

They carry out various mental computations in a matter of microseconds. For most individuals the left hemisphere of the brain is linguistically dominant however as in the case of those suffering neural injuries or trauma the right hemisphere depending on the area of damage, is able to compensate for the lack of function and signed languages where found to incorporate both hemispheres.

This would also mean that the premotor cortex which is responsible for planned movement is also in play during auditory linguistic utterance (and in even greater degree for signed languages) as the muscles in the face, throat and lungs must be prepared for the intricate dance of ballet which will result (or hopefully result) in the spoken word. After searching through various sources sometimes with conflicting notions it can be safely stated that the entire process is far from understood.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

(Illustration: Damasio, 2001)

In a comparative study between primates and humans it was found that high order primates are able to learn a very limited amount arbitrary word pairings in connection to symbols with meaning. Primates however were shown to have no capacity for hierarchically organized grammatical systems. The human brain however holds the staggering ability to not only learn a grammatical system rapidly from birth but to learn numerous such systems as is the case of multilingual individuals. Also various such systems may either integrate with one another or exist separately without convergence.

No other creature on this planet has the physiological structures needed for this complex process in the degree that humans have. The received auditory stimuli is decoded, processed and then the brain dictates the response based on the information decoded, which may be drastically different. To illustrate, the utterance of “How do you do?” incites a verbal response of “Very well, thank you.” The warning “Watch out for the bus!” would rapidly incline the brain to focus attention on the bus and as attention is focus the speedy response of the motor cortex causes the person to move out of the way of the oncoming vehicle. This entire procedure happens without cognitive thought. This is known as the acoustic startle reflex and the complete process usually occurs in less than ten milliseconds. (Lang and Bradley)

Research as to the exact physiological structures responsible for speech is constantly underway, however the context of such research remains more for the purpose of medical treatment than a focus on language itself. Regardless of the original aim however, this kind of research has shed much light on the anatomical regions which prove promising in understanding language as an “entity” and optimizing its acquisition or intake in the future.


The fundamentals of neuro-linguistics are separated into five main subfields of study which relate to specific functions that are vital to language formation. These areas are as follows;

Phonetics, Phonology, Morphology and Lexicology, Syntax and finally Semantics. Each of these areas highlights a piece of the puzzle that makes up language however they in themselves are only parts and can only give a clear image when considered synchronically.


The Greek word phōnētikós meaning vocal is the root of the English word phonetics. As the name suggests it deals primarily with the study of sound in speech. This covers auditory perception of speech, the acoustic properties of language and the physiological production ofspeech. (O’Grady 2005 p.15)

As is the case with any manifold science phonetics itself has given birth to yet more subfields of study. The study of the production of linguistic sounds by means of vocal organs is known as Articulatory Phonetics. The study of the actual transmission of speech sounds from the speaker to the listener is Acoustic Phonetics and the study reception and perception is referred to as Auditory Phonetics.

In Articulatory Phonetics close examination is made of physiological positions of the vocal organs but also takes into consideration dentistry and other outliers that play a vital role in sound formation. The tongue, lungs, nasal cavities, larynx and vocal cords work in close unity to produce various sounds as required for language production. In reality the sounds we hear in speech of any language is the controlled release of pressurized air which when released in pulses become auditory.

Articulatory phonetics seeks to understand the mechanisms which lead energy to change from an aerodynamic to acoustic form. (Bickford) Acoustic phonetics discusses the acoustic aspects of speech. The various acoustic properties of speech are studied such as amplitude, waveform, frequency and spectrum thereof. (Hardcastle & Laver) Auditory phonetics links hearing and perception of speech. This field is closely connected or considered a part of speech perception. Speech perception undertakes the task of finding how sound in language is interpreted upon auditory recognition. The first step taken by the brain is the verbal recognition of sound as opposed to background noise followed by the categorization of the phonetic elements and then drawing from the mental lexicon to classify the word and its definition. (Nygaard 1995).


While it is not fundamental for an instructor to know the intricate workings of phonetics as a scientific discipline a sound basis will be immensely advantageous in the inculcation of target phonics in second language learners. Especially useful for appropriate for second languagelearning is the practical application of articulatory phonetics this is in essence Phonics.

The majority of teachers already make use of articulatory phonics which the focus of much preschool (kindergarten) and introductory primary (elementary) school. The C -at, B-at, S-at enunciation of phonic pair combinations and patterning is effective for small children with short attention spans. Unfortunately, in some cases phonics is flogged more than the proverbial dead horse and in others students have a severe phonic deficit and are not able to articulate even simple words.

The main reason for this seems to be a lack on the part of the teacher or instructor. Underlying factors may include an inability of the teacher to recognize difficulty on the part of the student or the teacher is unaware that the student does not fully understand the mechanics of sound production. This can lead to confusion or worse first language transfer to the second language. If the instructor is lax in rectifying this problem the student may familiarize themselves with incorrect or substituted pronunciation.

For example the /s/ in the English word “sit” has no correlating sound in Korean especially when /s/ is combined with /i/. This combination of /s/ and /i/ in Korean causes the /s/ to be voiced as /sh/ which is the pronunciation for such Korean words as time ( Shigan 시간/時間 ). This poses notable problems for the meaning is severely affected by this mispronunciation such as replacing the /s/ in “sit” with /sh/ produces language unsuitable for polite conversation.

Further difficulties in Korean learners of English arise from the assimilation of sounds. In Korean (ㄹ) presents both /l/ and /r/ with the pronunciation somewhere in-between the two. This in turn causes unrelenting problems throughout the learning process with the continual confusion or misarticulating of words such as “light” or “right” in connection to context. Korean also lacks a /f/ sound causing words containing /f/ co be pronounced with a /p/. This problem is not limited only to Korean. Most languages have some form of unique sound or unique method of voicing the sound. Speakers of Semanto-phonetic and Syllabic languages have particular difficulties when learning languages that have single sounds representations per alphabetic symbol.

To illustrate, “McDonald’s” contains consonants clumped together /mcd/ and /lds/ which pose no problem for English speakers or for speakers of most European languages. However in the various languages of China, in Japanese and to a lesser extent Korean there is no consonant pairing. Instead each consonant is followed by a vowel or vowel pairing this causes McDonald’s to be pronounced as Mjidāngláo (麥當勞) in Mandarin Chinese, Makudonarudo (マクドナルド) in Japanese and maegdonaldeu (맥도날드) in Korean. Speakers of these languages often involuntarily add vowels in this manner into English words. This kind of linguistic transfer can cause obvious difficulties in learning a second language. Instructors should take note of particular learner problems such as these.

Many students are simply not enlightened as physically how to produce the required sounds. This can common be found in cases where students are taught at school by non-native language instructors. Sometimes this is because the teachers themselves have poor English ability and focus almost entirely on grammar. This form of teaching produces excellent grammar skills need to pass tests but absolutely zero ability to communicate in English whatsoever. It also produces incredibly shy students in Asian cultures who are in perpetual fear of losing face or social rank because of some perceived inferiority on their part.

There is a solution though. Train the students to have both Phonics and Phonemic Awareness only one of the two is not sufficient. According to the “Put Reading First” online booklet by the National Institute for literacy (Bonnie B. Armbruster p.3) it classifies these groups as follows.

“Phonics is the understanding that there is a predictable relationship between phonemes (the sounds of spoken language) and graphemes (the letters and spellings that represent those sounds in written language).”

“Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the individual sounds— phonemes—in spoken words.”

Native speakers are able to clearly pronounce words and read them when they have a clear understanding of these two areas. Some children who cannot adequately read their own native language of English have difficulties relating to this. For the second language learner it would naturally be a major obstacle if they had insufficient phonics as a basis. The solution then is to include a solid phonics base at the outset of study as much as possible (to the extent that it retains the student’s attention). Later as study progresses and the student gains linguistic ability it is wise to retain some phonics elements if the student is not yet fully competent and natural in their reading. This process may well continue into middle school.

Another vital aspect is to expose students to various accents and standard pronunciations. Often times, educational facilities in Asia pay undue attention to only American English which makes it very difficult to understand British, South African, Canadian, Australian or other standard forms of English. Such a situation is an inexcusable failure on the part of the instructor to vary teaching methods.

This area of neuro-linguistics has a crucial and direct effect on students. Teaching phonics or more correctly teaching it properly is the first step to student success in both speaking and writing.


Phonology describes how sounds encode meaning within a single language or across numerous languages. This discipline often bleeds into others such as phonics in its search for understanding (Lass). Within any given language there are sound groupings they are usually found together or appear in higher frequencies. Common examples include /pre/ meaning something that comes before, hence we have words such as predestination, preposition, preview and so forth.

Native speakers of languages probably do not give extensive thought to the individual parts of each word however this encodes vast amounts of information. When second language learners come to understand the meaning behind parts of words it gives hints as to meaning. In advanced students it can be noted that those who have attained a feeling for the second language are proficient in guessing with considerable accuracy as to the words meaning based on it parts and the context of the sentence (when not using idioms).

Phonology highlights some of the basic building blocks of languages.

English for example contains aspirated and non-aspirated sounds which can be found to even greater degree in Thai, Hindi and Bengali but which are not present at all in Korean and Japanese. This comes down to the natural intonation, stress, syllable structure and accent contained in the target language. (Goldsmith)

In speaker of tonal languages such as Thai, Khmer or Mandarin this may lead to overly stressed vowels in pronunciation or in languages that lack sense stress like Korean and Japanese may produce very emotionless flat sounding English. Korean contains very rigidly set pronunciation for vowels and consonants, adding inflection on these is considered to be an uneducated form of speech (regional dialect) so it can take considerable training and encouragement to get students to use more emotion in their speech.

Tonal languages generally cope better in English acquisition because English sometimes emulates forms found in tonal languages. Getting the correct tone on the word may be another matter. Also this may be expressed in a hard sharp manner leading to a feeling of harshness for listening native speakers.

A basic primary method to fix this is constant correction by the teacher and help for students to balance the intonation of the word and later in the sentence. It takes considerable practice on the part of the learner in order to overcome these kinds of pronunciation difficulties.

Realistically students who have passes puberty may never be able to emulate the exact sounds in the target language however the aim is not to be perfect but rather for competence to the highest degree attainable for the student. The teacher should then not unduly pressure the students or indeed expect perfection but aim for quality.

Taking into consideration the language of the learners can help them progress rapidly and unlock their potential while giving them self- confidence. A healthy degree of self-confidence boosts student productivity and enables them to enjoy the learning experience. Sense stress and modulation for conveying meaning are extremely sensitive methods of encoding language. An identical sentence in English may have several meanings, this makes modulation in English very important. Students need to understand that tone, sense stress and modulation will have a strong influence on how listeners interpret or misinterpret their words.

For instance, consider any simple sentence to display how modulation and sense stress effects interpretation. The stressed words are in italics, what difference is there in the sentence.

My family often goes to the beach in the summer. (Neutral)

My family often goes to the beach in the summer. (Emphasis on personal relationship with family.)

My family often goes to the beach in the summer. (Highlighting the entire group actions.)

My family often goes to the beach in the summer. (Expressing a time of events clearly.)

My family often goes to the beach in the summer. (Expressing travel as subject.)

My family often goes to the beach in the summer. (Emphasis on location.)

My family often goes to the beach in the summer. (Clarifying the time period of event.)

The sentence may be simple but emphasis on specific words has clearly effected the meaning for the listener in six different ways. In writing the expression may be limited but with the voice including further modulation and intonation even more definitions can be given to this simple sentence. Of course, students cannot be expected to fully understand this from the outset but if teachers give them a general feeling for this system it can assist their basic linguistic intuition.

Instructors should help their students understand and utilize the

concepts pertaining to phonology and the relationship between sounds as well as sense stress, modulation and intonation. This is the second step in building the linguistic house.


Morphology and lexicology engage in an intricate ballet on the lingual stage. Closely relating to other areas of study and many times forming an umbrella over them, these two areas of study include various parts. Morphology deals with morphemes which greatly alter word definitions in English as well as other languages. In English we commonly refer to these as prefixes or suffixes and while they are extensively used they are not always taught very well to second language learners.

English as with other languages in the Germanic family utilize a mind boggling array of prefixes and suffixes. This though can be a great aid for students in that this system enables students to learn a root word and add to it in parts. The root /govern/ can be modified with prefixes and suffixes to give different meaning based on the origin word. The result is government, governmental, anti-government and governing. These all have a basic root and relate to the origin meaning however they give more information.

Morphemes are not limited to only prefixes and suffixes, as these are referred to as Bound Morphemes due to their link to a root origin. However Free Morphemes can also include entire words such as city or dog which become Free Morphemes when used in such expressions as city centre or the doghouse. (Spencer) Morphemes make it much easier for the pupil to identify possible definitions of a word and how it can be use within the sentence in relation to other words. No language exists with solitary stagnant words, rather various words form sentences and interact with each other to relay encoded data. This is where lexicology comes into play. Lexicology considers the symbols in written words as well as sound of spoken word in the contexts of their nature and function. Their meaning and relation to other words is taken into account as well as the relationship they have based on their semantics, derivation and use in sociolinguistic settings.


According to Allan Metcalf in his book “Predicting New Words — The Secrets of Their Success” there are a few ways that the mental lexicon comes into play, the breakdown of these is as follows.

Innovation, the planned creation of new roots (often on a large-scale), such as slang, branding.

Borrowing of foreign words.

Compounding (composition), the combination of lexemes to make a single word.

Abbreviation of compounds.

Acronyms, the reduction of compounds to their initial letters, such as NASA and laser (from "LASER").

Inflection, a morphology change with a category, such as number or tense.

Derivation, a morphological change resulting in a change of category. Agglutination, the compounding of morphemes into a single word. The mental lexicon or word-bank inside the brain makes use of all these and builds on them during the language learning process. The task of teachers is to inculcate enough vocabulary into their students in order to naturally start what this essentially is, a mental catalogue. For students at a young age the kick starting of this process may seem more fluid than older students however there is no reason that this should not be the case with a self-disciplined student that has an alert teacher who will cater for vocabulary acquisition.

Memorising vocabulary by itself is not a favourable method. Words continually interact with one another therefore learning words in the context of their interaction namely in a sentence will be of great benefit to students. Even if they are not able to fully grasp the relations repeated exposure in this manner will gradually unlock grammar and expressions.

This can be seen in immigrants who learn to speak language without formally studying it. This effect is what should be emulated.


“In linguistics, syntax from Ancient Greek σύνταξις "arrangement" from σύν syn, "together", and τάξις táxis, "an ordering" is "the study of the principles and processes by which sentences are constructed in particular languages". (Chomsky p.11)

Even if a student does all things perfectly he or she will accomplish nothing if they do not possess the skill to produce a coherent sentence. Often times, syntax is naturally acquired though guidance is needed for students to fully understand the way it may work in a foreign language.

In basic situations English follows a subject + verb + object or Adverb + subject +verb + object. Korean and Japanese students may have trouble forming sentences in this manner instead they may use a subject + object + verb combination. So The man wrote a letter becomes Man letter wrote. (Japanese and Korean do not use definite articles such as “a”, “an” and “the”.) Doubtless one can still understand the intended meaning. With this said, the matter is somewhat different in longer sentences, more so in cases of poor word choice or lack of vocabulary.

Indeed a fine grasp of syntax will almost guarantee a fine grasp of the language. Due to grammar errors and poor word choice being a major factor in identifying second language speakers over the phone or in other non-face to face situations. Syntax can be acquired by grammar study, extensive listening but most importantly by trial, error and correction.

Many instructors and students alike feel that errors are unacceptable and wrong. This is untrue. This common misconception lies in the basis of the testing system that assumes one answer is correct and another is wrong. In reality errors serve a useful purpose. In the beginning of the language learning process learners are unaware of their own errors, as they progress they start to become aware of language patterns even if it is on a subconscious level.

After they have attained a level of linguistic self-awareness they will naturally start to self - correct. This process helps to further impress the lingual patterns in the brain. Evaluation of this sort builds various grammar, lexical and syntax skills.

Various speaking drills as well as sentence or phrasal memorization can be used to impress syntax and grammar patterns on the mind. Comparative syntax can be used to show the difference or similarity between the syntax structures of the native and target languages. This does not call for extensive grammar translation or complicated explanations as regards to grammar relationships per se but a general grammar course would be of benefit.

In Asian lands grammar and syntax are over-emphasized with little or no speaking practice. It produces children who are well informed as to syntax but have no way of speaking in a coherent manner as they have next to no linguistic practice opportunities. The old saying is thus verified; “People learn grammar from language, not language from grammar.”

Syntax although being of vital importance should therefore be actively paired with applied forms of learning such as speaking drills and conversation drills. All pupils regardless of age should be encouraged to become avid readers.

Professor Anne Hilferty from the University of Massachusetts comments on the relationship between reading and speaking.

“By reciprocity I mean that as skills in some aspect of oral language increase, they help development in reading, and as a person improves his reading skills, that improvement seems to enhance further improvement in the spoken language. This seems to be a continuing spiral. I became interested in this because some adult ESOL teachers don't seem to think that it is true. They seem to think there's somewhat of a one-way influence: that development in spoken language influences development of reading. That's true, but it's also true that as people develop stronger reading skills, they further enable their development of more sophisticated speaking skills.”

Students who enjoy reading are more likely to be receptive to the learning process. The receptive attitude affects their natural learning rate and the ease at which they can learn. At the earliest opportunity reading should be emphasised, encouraged and rewarded. There is an old saying “reading is the father of study”, truer words were never spoken.


Semantics studies the relationship and link between words, phrases, symbols or signs and their meaning. Needless to say all languages of different ways of expressing thoughts or conveying meaning.

Semantics can vary in defining several fields of thought from simplistic to highly complex. In everyday language it comes into play in such things as word selection, connotation and conversational context. No doubt the wide range that this covers has over time caused more areas to creep into this field of study namely how facial expression, body language, gestures and other paralanguage have meaning. (Neurath 1955)

Taking these factors into consideration it can be presupposed that there may be immense and far reaching divergence between the semantics of even closely related languages based oncultural and perceptional separation. This semantic influence may be felt in written language in such seemingly negligible areas as punctuation and paragraph structure.

Starting from its basic elements semantics can be conveyed in words. Next several words in pairings or multiple groupings convey combined meaning. After this sentences form relationships within a paragraph, paragraphs into chapters and finally chapters into an entire book. Thus from its basic unitary structure semantics snowballs or grows and branches into an extensive and deeply meaningful encoded system for the transmission of ideas.


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Neurolinguistics and Multiculturalism for Language Instructors
Fundamental Knowledge for Language Acquisition
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Prof. Alaric Naudé (Author), 2014, Neurolinguistics and Multiculturalism for Language Instructors, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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