The brain is a curious thing. Different brain regions perform different functions. It’s small, yet complex. It’s sensitive in certain situations and hardy in others.
And although the brain is versatile and complex, when it faces a new obstacle, it is not always successful.
Such a scenario played out recently when University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students were required to take introductory Spanish classes 8212; strictly online. According to Inside Higher Ed, UNC-CH is just over two semesters into the language experiment.
The report demonstrated that students who had previously taken Spanish classes encountered few obstacles from the online model, while those who were first-time learners encountered significant barriers in retaining and understanding the language.
This experiment was likely put to use before considering easier alternatives. The experiment’s initial program has since been canceled out due to this faulty approach.
According to the report, the Spanish department had to initiate strictly online classes because of a $150,000 department budget cut. While the department could not control such a cut, the solution to this budget cut could have been to lower class sizes and limit class availability as opposed to create strictly online courses. That way, the students would have had to determine their own academic fate.
Additionally, when learning a language, face-to-face interaction is vital. Students must be able to hear the language spoken to accurately understand its function.
Conversational competencies are often the most difficult to grasp when studying a language because those competencies indicate how an individual is progressing toward fluency or bilingualism.
Writing and reading a language is important. It allows an individual to relate to a language’s writings and to recognize the language written in public places. But the key to understanding a language is interacting with those who speak it day in and day out. The only way to become proficient in another language is to hear it spoken either natively or fluently.
All of this relates to the brain because some people do not have “language brains.” Much like a math major could be considered a “numbers person” and an English major could be considered a “words person,” one’s brain must first be capable to understand language before he or she takes a language class. That means some people who are trying to learn another language are not actually learning; rather, forcing their brains to learn that which they are not readily willing to learn.
According to a 2008 report from Science Daily, the brain must first be conditioned to learn language before doing so. Otherwise, the only way a monolingual brain can become bilingual is if it is raised in a bilingual environment. According to the report, those who hear two languages during early childhood development have brains that are conditioned to learn language. On the other hand, those who pick up language in early adulthood find themselves stumped because their brains simply do not function that way.
Long story short, the UNC-CH Spanish department did not consider these research findings in moving its classes to strictly online. Such research must be the foundation for these types of shifts in the future.
Wyatt Kanyer is a junior news-editorial journalism major from Yakima, Wash.