Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The brain and multifaceted language exposure

While we're on the topic of the bleeding edge of language-learning technology, an article entitled Brain Researchers Open Door to Editing Memory in today's New York Times has some information relevant to language learners regarding how the brain learns:
[B]rain cells activated by an experience keep one another on biological speed-dial, like a group of people joined in common witness of some striking event. Call on one and word quickly goes out to the larger network of cells, each apparently adding some detail, sight, sound, smell. The brain appears to retain a memory by growing thicker, or more efficient, communication lines between these cells.
My approach to language learning has always been one of multiple types of exposure. Take a new vocab word, for example. Let's say you come across it in a book. You've now got speed dial set up between that book and the word, and perhaps between the word and the sentence, paragraph, thing it was in reference to, etc. Then you look it up. Now you've got the connections built to the meaning. Let's say you later hear it in a podcast. There's another connection. An example like this would seem to fit into the paradigm they suggest: you're building thicker connections to that word, and are thus more likely to learn it. Apply that to all units of language learning—words, phrases, grammar rules, characters, pronunciation, intonation, etc.—and you can see how various exposure makes language learning easier.

A quick look at the ethical issues, and a clip from The Matrix,after the jump.

Beyond learning mechanics, there are some ethical issues involved here as well. They have begun work on chemicals that affect memory, initially aimed at treating problems but enhancing performance is just a few steps beyond that. The issues largely parallel steroid use in sports:
“If this [critical memory] molecule is as important as it appears to be, you can see the possible implications,” said Dr. Todd C. Sacktor, a 52-year-old neuroscientist who leads the team at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center, in Brooklyn, which demonstrated its effect on memory. “For trauma. For addiction, which is a learned behavior. Ultimately for improving memory and learning.” … [W]hen scientists find a drug to strengthen memory, will everyone feel compelled to use it? … A substance that improved memory would immediately raise larger social concerns… “We know that people already use smart drugs and performance enhancers of all kinds, so a substance that actually improved memory could lead to an arms race,” Dr. Hyman said.
I can say for sure that I don't want to be one of the first guinea pigs to try something like this out, but if something like this is truly proven safe and enhances learning without screwing anything else up, it would certainly be something to consider.

Personally, however, rather than popping some pill and then using other learning techniques to learn a language, I'd rather take my languages like Neo took his kungfu. Just find a way to upload it straight to my brain, please. Rather than "I know kungfu", I'd be able to open my eyes and say, "I know Korean".

No comments:

Post a Comment