The Amygdala, Anxiety and Kiswahili in my Brain

The Amygdala plays a central role in motivation and emotional behavior. The Amygdala, an almond-shaped neural structure in the anterior part of the temporal lobe of the cerebrum intimately connected with the hypothalamus, hippocampus and cingulate gyrus; as part of the limbic system located in the brain plays a crucial role in learning a language. When children acquire their first language, they receive a lot of encouragement. People smile and repeat whatever they say in order to encourage verbal utterances. Most importantly they respond to the child’s needs. So if a child says the word for “eat” or “bottle,” someone responds by feeding them, which triggers the amygdala in a positive way and release a lot of “feel good” hormones.

We don’t expect children’s utterances to be perfect. My son’s first words at 6 months of age were “De De”. Desiren was his sister who was two years old and she treated him like a live baby doll. Desiren would give him anything and everything he wanted without hesitation. She ran to him when he cried and attempted to comfort him. She would report to me if he fell or seemed uncomfortable. He learned to call her name and point and she responded, powerful reinforcement. I sent Desiren to preschool at 31/2 because he was not developing language at the expected rate because he didn’t have to say words. De De was always there. He later learned to pronounce Desiren with practice. No one teased or ridiculed him for referring to her as “De De “ We accepted whatever initial sounds that he made and responded to his requests.

The cerebral system underlying emotion also plays an important, but often neglected role in learning language (Damasio, 1994, 1999), The structures of the limbic system that subserve emotions, drives and desires, are phylogenetically and ontogenetically anterior to the development of higher cognitive systems. Learning a language requires higher level thinking skills and emotion plays a major role in utilizing higher cognitive systems. Lamendella (1977) suggested that implicit linguistic competence was integrated within the limbic system (involving the striatum and amygdala), My personal experiences learning languages validate Lamendella’s suggestion.

In Africa children study English, French or Portuguese at an early age. Children have more flexible  upper respiratory muscles, better auditory discrimination, better short term memory and less inhibition. So there pronunciation is much better than an adults and the other characteristics give the impression that they know what they are saying and they receive the same kind of positive receive the same positive reinforcement. Plus they don’t have to use the language immediately to meet their needs. They study the language for years before they have to use and even then they may switch to the first language to communicate to parents, teachers and friends any urgent wants and needs.

Research generally focuses on the cognitive aspects of the learner. Affect in language learning involves emotion, feeling and attitudes of the learner. Affect influence the student’s language learning process positively or negatively. Understanding the role of affect in second language learning can lead to more effective language learning and teaching.

So when an adult comes to Africa to learn a new language, adults find it amusing when adult learners mispronounce words and make grammatical errors. Instead of listening to what the person is saying and responding to what is said they may instead laugh or correct the way it is said.  Language Teachers have a tendency to focus on the way words are pronounced and used and to overcorrect which causes anxiety when speaking.

Anxiety is one of the most negative influential variables, which prevents learners from successful learning a new language. The factor correlated with anxiety, self-confidence involves judgments and evaluations. Low self-confidence negatively influences language acquisition when the learner thinks himself deficient in speaking. Anxiety contributes to poor aural/oral performance.

Americans, Canadians and Europeans in the general public tend to react in the same way to language learners overcorrecting and focusing too much attention on errors.  Americans in general don’t feel a need to learn anybody’s language because they feel that everybody needs to learn English. I have found this attitude to a lesser extent with Great Britain. Most Europeans and Canadians learn other languages as children as well and tend to be less tolerant of mistakes but accept variations in pronunciation. In my experience, Latin Americans in the general public tolerate mispronunciations and mistakes because they struggle with English and appreciate when others attempt to learn their language. They encourage communication and respond to requests when they understand them without overcorrection or ridicule. Some language teachers in Latin American tend to overcorrect stemming from national pride in their language and for political reasons related to the United States.

The other problem with learning a language in Africa or any developing country revolves around the problem of people asking for money. I never experience professional people asking for money in Latin America. But I experience professional people asking for money in personal matters, frequently in Africa.  Lack of trust dampens the amygdala, which inhibits learning. Learning becomes difficult without trust and lack of trust makes it impossible to communicate when you know the end result of the communication is an appeal for money.

Learners forget sounds in the target language and revert to the sounds in the original language when under duress. People seeking medical assistance for injury or illness often lose the target language as they struggle to express their pain.  Stress, fatigue, fear and anxiety play a role in making the sounds necessary for the acquisition of a new language.  The muscles of the upper respiratory system do not flex and move easily under stress. Like all muscles, they become hard and less pliable which make producing sounds difficult if not impossible.

Criticism, ridicule and overcorrection inhibit the amygdala and dampen language acquisition. When I was in Africa and made a error in learning French, Kiswahili or any language, even if I self corrected, I was reminded of the error for days and days afterward.  I am sure that people did not mean any harm by reminding me that I made an error two weeks ago but by constantly repeating the error, they were actually reinforcing the error and increasing the likelihood that I would make it again. The tendency to interrupt me and to remind me how poorly I spoke before and how much I had learned because of their assistance also acted to decrease my desire to speak. So I avoided personal conversations with people attempting to be friends.

In conclusion understanding the emotional aspects, which impede and enhance language learning can have a huge impact on language teaching and learning. The amygdala’s role enhances or inhibits the acquisition of language this section discussed the way that negative emotions inhibit language learning.

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