How To Use Your Right Brain For Language Learning

New research suggests your creative mind may play more of a role than previously thought in your language studies.
Woman riding the bus with headphones in gazing out the window

To be fair, most people probably don’t give much consideration to the activation of their brain hemispheres when they’re learning a language — they kind of just do it. But if you’re into this kind of thing, some new research from the University of Delaware has upended the notion that language processing doesn’t involve any right brain learning.

According to the study, which was published in the journal NeuroImage, the right brain may actually play a very important role in helping language learners familiarize themselves with the basic sounds and acoustic details of a new tongue — otherwise known as phonemes — despite the fact that the left brain has traditionally been considered the hub of language processing.

“The left hemisphere is known as the language-learning part of the brain, but we found that it was the right hemisphere that determined the eventual success” in learning Mandarin, said University of Delaware cognitive neuroscientist Zhenghan Qi.

“This was new,” she said. “For decades, everyone has focused on the left hemisphere, and the right hemisphere has been largely overlooked.”

The study’s 24 participants were exposed to pairs of similar sounds early in the process, and they were asked to describe and distinguish them. The participants then studied Mandarin for four weeks in a setting that mimicked a college language class, and they had MRI brain scans taken throughout. The study authors found that the most successful language learners had much more activation in their right hemisphere during the early sound-recognition stage, even though the left hemisphere eventually took over as the studies progressed.

Though more research still needs to be done in order to determine if this applies to all languages (and not just Mandarin as a second language), there are ways to incorporate right brain learning into your language studies that we’ve already been advocating for quite some time.

How To Use Right Brain Learning In Your Language Studies

    • The main reason right brain learning worked in the context of the above study was because it aided in phoneme recognition. Thus, it stands to reason that simply familiarizing yourself with the way a language sounds can be extremely helpful when you’re just starting out — or really, at any stage in the learning process. Listening to foreign-language podcasts is a great way to tap into the auditory riches of a language in its natural-sounding glory — and to absorb its elements by osmosis.


    • Pictures are another key tool for right brain learning. If you’re more of a visual learner, you can also create flashcards with images to help you memorize vocabulary terms.



  • To engage this part of your brain, you’re going to want to focus less on specific grammatical rules and more on your ability to tell or understand a story in the language you’re studying. Watching a foreign-language movie will not only expose you to the sounds of the language, but also to a more nonlinear instruction for how it can be used in a fictional scenario.
When you're done, follow it up with a language lesson.
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