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How Language Learning Interacts with the Brain’s Reward System

What implications does new research on the brain have for language learners?


Effects of learning a new language to the brain

Image via J E Theriot


From our earliest years, the brain rewards us for learning new words just as it rewards us for taking risks, consuming calorie rich foods and playing games. Scientists have recently confirmed that this intrinsic motivation stays with us throughout our lives and encourages us to strengthen our vocabulary in multiple languages.

It was determined by an experiment conducted at the University of Barcelona that the same part of the brain’s reward system that makes sex, drugs and gambling feel good is also responsible for rewarding language learning. The implications of this from an evolutionary standpoint are rather interesting, suggesting that those who have greater linguistic capabilities have a genetic advantage compared to those with more limited ability to communicate.

What should language learners take away from the experiment?


The researches identified that parts of the brain responsible for rewarding language learners are also associated with both emotion and memory storage. The suggestion that emotion plays an important role in language acquisition rings a bell with many current language teachers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that if you are able to associate a new word with a particular emotion, you are more likely to be able to recall the new word accurately.


Language learning apps which encourage users to associate new vocabulary words with images, such as Memrise, might have unknowingly taken advantage of the emotion-memory link, because images are associated more strongly with our emotions than words. This hypothetical emotional connection suggests that teachers who use images, story and relationships as part of their methodology are on the right track.


The scientists also measured the chemicals in the brain to determine how rewarding each participant found new language acquisition. Those who had higher levels of myelin, a chemical responsible for carrying information to the reward structure, were able to learn more new words during the study. In other words, those who felt best about learning were able to learn more than those who felt less rewarded. If you happen to be one of those people who doesn’t find studying languages rewarding, don’t give up, there are still plenty of ways that we can and should maximise the ‘feel good factor’ in language learning.

Learning New Spanish Words is a Pleasure


There has been plenty of research done recently on the effect of language learning on the brain, from increasing brain size to delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s, but the majority of these studies have given learners a reason why they should study without also suggesting a how. This study by the University of Barcelona  is an exception as it has confirmed something that good language teachers already knew – enjoyable learning is effective learning.


Whether you want to experience the pleasures of learning your first new Spanish words, or reach the point where you can read an entire novel, you’ll certainly find classes with Spanish Tutor DC rewarding!

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