Recent research conducted by cognitive neuroscientist Zhenhan Qi and her colleagues at the University of Delaware provides new insights into how the brain functions when learning a new language. Findings suggest that the right hemisphere of the brain also plays a role in the process of learning a new language, contrary to common belief. Further research on this idea could potentially lead to new ways to improve student success in learning new languages.

This study was composed of two steps, beginning with exposing the 24 adult participants to pairs of similar sounds that began with different consonants. Each participant had their brain scanned with a functional MRI to measure brain activation patterns as they described the sounds. According to these brain scans, researchers predicted which participants would be most successful in learning the new language. As it has been shown that individuals need to learn how to identify basic sounds of a language before they can learn the vocabulary and grammar of the language, researchers observed which parts of the brain were active during this process.


Next, the participants took part in an intensive Mandarin course, where their brains were scanned before and after each class. The classes replicated a condensed one-semester college course, occurring for three and a half hours per day, five times a week, with homework, assignments and tests. Upon completion of the study, the researchers found that although there was increased activation in the left brain as expected, the most successful users had the most active right hemispheres during the first stage of the study. The results suggest that the right brain is a key contributor to processing foreign speech sounds at the start of learning a new language. More research is to be conducted in order to determine if the results from this study apply to other languages.

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This post was written by Allison Wong