Home » Madrid: Ex-pat Experiences & Thoughts » Brain Plasticity – How Do We Learn?

Brain Plasticity – How Do We Learn?


Brain Plasticity – looks as complex as it sounds?

Well, last week I had my first official Intercambio meeting (Spanish and English language exchange), via a college here in Madrid. I have written about learning Spanish in a previous post, and the trials and tribulations of becoming accustomed to a new language and life setting. It is not as though I don’t use what Spanish I have learnt, or practice with others, but this Intercambio meeting was the first step in officially ratifying and testing my learning.

Needless to say I felt very nervous. One reason was the fact I didn’t know who I would be meeting with, and I couldn’t be certain whether we would have any common ground to even begin a conversation with. Secondly I really pinned my hopes on using this meeting as a vehicle to gain acquaintance with new people, and to continue to expand my networks; hence I really wanted the initial meeting to go well. Thirdly I was aware I was succumbing to my inner disappointments, because of my lack of Spanish language skills. I therefore felt I was going to be somehow inferior to everyone else present. I have this belief that everyone I meet has mastered a second or third language far better than I ever will; not a conducive thought for the learning processes to take hold (I know).

Anyway, I was eagerly punctual, as always and begun chatting to one of the staff at the college who is Romanian. He was trying to reassure me that it does take time to learn any language well enough to speak confidently, while proceeding to provide me with the same advice I usually receive; go out more and interact and listen to the language being spoken, watch television and listen to the radio. Basically submerse myself in the language on a daily basis.

Of course I agree with this, but again I seem to struggle, though admittedly I am not submerging myself enough.

However, I have reached a point where I am considering my brain’s capacity to actually learn a new language. Is it physically possible for me to learn a new language, have I the specific abilities required in this type of learning or is it merely my self doubt hindering my abilities because I insist on being under confident?

Learning is a complex, but it often happens without conscious recognition; it is something we do everyday without thought. I wondered how it was possible to even begin learning anything, how is learning made easy or completed by the brain. Well, after studying Psychology I know the scientific facts of how the brain absorbs and retains information; written, spoken, memories and actions. I have learnt about Neurons, Neural pathways and Synapses. Yet, how does what we learn, see or do actual stick; what acts do we complete whilst learning something to make the physical processes in the brain kick in?

I considered the theory of ‘brain plasticity’, I wondered if it were applicable. Put simply this theory states; plasticity is something that occurs when we engage in new learning and experience, the brain begins to establish neural pathways to compensate. Neural pathways or circuits are routes made of inter-communicating neurons. These routes are created in the brain through learning and practice; like retreading a path. Visual and auditory cortex’s can be involved in the process, as well as muscle memory. The more you revisit the new experience or learning activity, the stronger the connections become, the more efficient they are made and the faster cognition will become.

Sounds simple enough right?! Well, I now have begun to wonder if my brain has lost out on this plasticity malarkey. Just how much brain plasticity I have in reference to being able to learn new language skills?

Now I haven’t completed a scientific test, but surely not all people are able to learn and perfect everything? The scientific theory seems to make it all sound so easy; the old adage of practice makes perfect resonates throughout it. Yet, what if the practice itself is difficult? What if you prefer something more than the other, won’t that effect what and how you learn? How is it that I can read or watch something I find interesting in English, and retain the information immediately, and in Spanish I feel as though my brain resists the information and learning process?

Are some areas of learning or things to be learnt, just out of bounds for some people? I mean not everyone can dance, play guitar, recall their maths times tables; so cannot that be true of language?

I feel there is always a piece of the learning process missing when it comes to practising Spanish. I know practice and effort are the key, but also self belief, confidence and understanding what we are learning have importance too. Maybe they hold more importance than the actual effort and practice. From experience repetition and effort doesn’t always succeed in making learning kick in and stick. Or could it be that once you get past your teens learning becomes more difficult; because finding the time and head space to fully dedicate yourself, and concentrate completely on learning something new becomes more scarce?

Anyway, I intend to put the theories to the test, on myself in any-case. I have the opportunity to do so as the Intercambio meeting went well, and I will be meeting with a couple of people on a regular basis to practice Spanish. Hopefully I can then shock my brain into action or reaction! I don’t really want to seriously consider the fact that my brain might not have the capacity to learn a new language; that thought doesn’t appeal to me. I feel there has to be a way! I will therefore use all the learning techniques available to encourage plasticity. After all, I am Mistress over my own brain, or am I?

Copy Right Notice:
© Bex Houghagen and The Savvy Senorita, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bex Houghagen and The Savvy Senorita with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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