Learning a new language is like learning to drive: it does not matter in which order you learn to steer, use the brake, or change gear. It’s what you do as a whole that is important, not which component you learn first.

The latest breakthroughs in the neurosciences, combined with innovative technology for measuring brain activity, are shedding new light on the neural basis of foreign language learning. The functions of the brain during language acquisition are associated with one of the brain hemispheres. The assignment of these functions to a certain half is called lateralisation and is completed before puberty. This explains why this is often indicated as the age limit for acquiring a language with native-like skills.

However, nowadays we know that both hemispheres are involved in language acquisition and production, with different tasks and purposes:

  • The right half ensures the global perception of the context, and comprehension of the connotation of the language, i.e. metaphors, irony, humour, etc.
  • The left half has an analytical perception (cause-effect), which allows the person to understand the logical part of the message.

In other words, both sides of our brain are complementary when learning a language, as the right hemisphere will help us to understand the lexical part of the message as well as its emotional connotation, while the left half will decode its grammar, and phonetic and logical components.

The efficiency of the neuronal networks which are responsible for these functions rely on several factors. First, for example, the age you start learning a new language matters, and the frequency of exposition and use of the language itself. In addition, the level of emotional involvement matters, and the personal learning style of the learner. Thus, the more involved and motivated an adult is, the easier it is to get through the same stages they went through when learning to speak their mother tongue.

Findings on how our brain works when learning a new language have had a major impact on language learning over the years. Over recent decades, the focus of second language learning has shifted from a more traditional approach targeting grammar, learning by repetition and memorisation, to a more dynamic one where the learner can adjust their learning experience and find what is best for their learning style. Therefore, the traditional teacher-centred model has ceded ground to the learner-centred one.

Beside these new studies in neurosciences, the big 21st century sociological trends have also contributed to changing the way we learn a language.

Mastering excellent communication skills has become a must. Nowadays, public speaking and presentation skills are considered important for both studying and working, and communication has quickly become a symbol of positive leadership. Social media also did a lot to spread this way of communicating, part of a new knowledge sharing.

Another big trend is the digital revolution, which is having important consequences on our learning style. E-learning is evolving at a fast pace and learning a new language with digital support is getting easier and easier. Visual, audio and virtual exercises help learners to immerse themselves in the language and culture they want to study with a methodology that simulates the instinctive language acquisition in children. The advantage is that you do it at your own pace, whenever and wherever it suits you best.

Finally, the multicultural societies in which we live have also influenced our learning style and motivation. Today we no longer study a foreign language to get a better job, as it was probably the case a few decades ago. Now, institutions promote multilingualism from primary school to open pupils’ minds, encourage them to discover new cultures and use these to enrich their own personality.