The Amgdala and Second Language Acquisition

The Amygdala, described in the previous section is a part of the brain,  plays a major role in motivation and emotional behavior. Emotional Behavior and Language play a major role in learning a second language or speaking in a first language. Emotion serves a positive or a negative role. This article focuses on the positive role.

Lamendella (1977) suggested that metalinguistic knowledge was not involved   within the limbic system (involving the striatum and amygdala). In layman’s terms emotions are not central to studying grammar rules. Metalinguistic knowledge involves higher-level language abilities, which include the child’s ability to conceptualize, manipulate and judge the content and meaning of language. These skills allow a child to discuss, think and talk about language as an object that can be analyzed. Lamendella suggestion implies that we need emotion to communicate on a personal level but emotions fail to influence the analysis of language, which involves the study of grammar as a subject.

I mentioned somewhere that I acquired 5 languages in 2 1/2 years. I taught myself the language using technology in the United States.  Then I went to the country where the language was spoken and perfected the language by interacting with native people. I attended language schools, which I hated. The materials were generally culturally insensitive and degraded people with dark skins, plus the teachers spent too much time lecturing and correcting my errors to make themselves feel superior.

I learned to talk to children. Children will tell you a word in their language without a lecture or attitude that you must be lacking in intelligence to ask the question. I taught school in Kenya. The student agreed that they would teach me Kiswahili on their break. They eagerly completed their assignments so that we would have time for them to teach me Kiswahili. I designed a system to learn languages. I learn nouns first so that I can identify what I want. Then I learn a few phrases of courtesy, thank You, please may I have etc. and a few phrases of introduction, my name is, I live in the United States etc. Then verbs, adjectives, adverbs prepositions and somewhere along the way. I pick up grammar rules.

Since I was teaching children and they seemed to need the most help with math. I decided to start with math. Many children work in Africa and they understand the concept of counting and money. So the children got an opportunity to write numbers on the board and I would say the numbers in Kiswahili. The Swahili people have been known for centuries as traders along the Indian Ocean. So this fit well into their culture. Kiswahili is considered a language of commerce and spoken during business in the surrounding countries, so knowing numbers would be a great way to Segway into a conversation with adults.  I needed to know numbers in order to buy food and other necessities while in Kenya. It fulfilled a direct need to survive with native speakers. I enjoy working with children and they enjoy teaching a foreigner their language. The exchange was reinforcing and motivating.

Schumann has repeatedly emphasized the importance of motivation, and in particular the role of the amygdala and the dopaminergic system in the acquisition of language (Schumann, 1990, 1994, 1998). One important difference between first and second language appropriation is that the first phase of the microgenesis of an utterance, namely the desire to communicate a message, is mostly missing in the learning of an L2 in a school environment (Paradis, 1992), resulting in a lack of dopamine release (Schumann, 1998). In essence, most students don’t have a need to learn the language other than school requirement, which decreases motivation. So learning with the children provided me with a desire to communicate and this knowledge would be useful when interacting with adults.

The impact of motivation on L2 learning has also been well documented, showing that both instrumental and integrative motivations have a facilitating effect on L2 appropriation, and that the impact of integrative motivation is stronger (Lambert, 1969), probably because it also encourages feeling with words. I found a way to increase my motivation and desire and to move past the discomfort of making new sounds, which sounded strange to me. I found a way to move past my inhibitions and practice with native speakers in a classroom.

In conclusion, I develop my own communicative language classroom utilizing the middle school students in my classroom. I decreased my anxiety and increased my oral/aural performance. I increased my confidence and self-esteem in speaking Kiswahili so that I would have the motivation to step outside my trusted circle of students and interact with the general public in the targeted language. This methodology follows best practices in acquiring a language. The process of learning become pleasurable and thereby increased the chances that learning would be retained and practiced. High confidence increases oral proficiency. Motivation, attitude and trust prove to be tangible aspects of increasing learner performance.



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3 responses to “The Amgdala and Second Language Acquisition

  1. I always say that the key factor to acquiring a language is motivation. A car can’t move without fuel and a person can’t learn with no motivation. I am not claiming people are as mechanic as machines but the comparison makes sense to me!
    Thank you for keeping me inspired, mom 🙂

  2. Kwame M.A. Somburu

    The world is my school, and many of its inhabitants, past and present are and have been my teachers. My fervent thanks to you for this positive contribution to my knowledge base.

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