Neurological Frontiers

Mario Rinvolucri

For 25 years I have worked as a modern language methodologist and now,
suddenly, in mid-career, I see a whole new horizon opening before me. For
25 years, in the excellent company of people like Alan Maley, Bernard Dufeu,
Andrew Wright, Paul Davis, John Morgan, Jean Marc Care, Herbert Puchta,
Luke Prodromou, Donald Freeman, Tessa Woodward, Seth Lindstromberg, and
Peter Grundy, I have beavered away at exercises that have certainly made
the language classroom much less tedious than it was in the early 70s, a
time when I greeted the poverty-stricken bag of activities proposed by Robert
O`Neill (1971) in Kernels Intermediate with rapture--they were so
much better than what we had had before. We now have available a powerful
edifice of techniques to use in the EFL classroom, and it is the methodologists
who have borrowed them, adapted them, and created them. The fact that maybe
not more than l0,000 of the 400,000 colleagues who teach EFL in China's
secondary schools know anything about these techniques is a sad one. The
fact that you can do a Master's in ELT in the US or the UK and learn very
little about the sizeable toolbox now available is a sad fact, too. However,
the knowledge and experience are there and available in 200 or 300 teachers'
handbooks, from where they gradually filter into the internationally produced
course books.

The Snag in the Methodologists' Work

Our main problem over the past 25 years is that we have devised exercises
with very little knowledge of how people learn language. We have had to
work with little or no scientifically validated knowledge. We have had to
follow our hunches and work artistically. Having devised an exercise we
have been able to watch students using the scenario in question and then
been able to think analytically about how the exercise appears to be helping
or not helping the learner. In this area, sadly, the writings of most of
the applied linguists have been of little help.

The neurologists of the brain, people like A. Damasio (1994), have recently
started publishing material that begins to describe how learning may take
place, and which areas of the human brain are involved. With the growth
of these neurological studies we are gradually building up a physiological
picture of how learning happens. If this continues, then language methodologists
will have some basis for favoring Activity A over Activity B in terms of
the brain activity provoked by each.

Let me illustrate the way discoveries in neuroscience can suddenly throw
light onto an area of language teaching where before what we did was little
more than psychological guessing.

Correction as an Example of an Area Illuminated by Neuroscience

When I first came into teaching 35 years back, correction was not an
area of worry or concern. The student made a mistake and I said: "Not
'teburu,' Hiroi, say'table.'" Was that not what teachers were
there for?

The next step, for me, was to observe students as I corrected them and
to wonder what they were really doing with the correction. I began to notice
that the Hirois went on saying "table" wrong, despite my best
correction effort. I noticed that oceans of scrupulous red ink did not much
improve my students' writing.

After doing some psychological reading and after working with some master
teachers, like Gattegno, I realized that the acceptability of correction,
like the acceptability of any advice, depends on who is giving it, when,
and where. By looking at behavior correction in the family, it has become
clear that there is a big difference between parental correction and sibling
correction, parallel to teacher and peer correction in the classroom. This
brought greater clarity into my thinking; and, since then, I have devised
a variety of parental correction techniques and sibling ones.

When I began writing letters to students, I realized that I did not want
to correct the letters they sent me. It seemed to run against the grain
of the communication to give them their letters back with marks all over
them. As I corresponded more with students, I realized how right my instinctive
refusal to correct had been. By not focusing on the negative, I helped students
open their wings and fly across the page, take risks and try to say things
they really could not yet say. I then added principled zero correction
to parental correction and sibling correction.

All this thinking about correction up to this point had been teacherish
and psychological. I had only dealt with correction from the outside, social
correction. But what about self-correction? Why do second language speakers
correct oral mistakes they make a second after making them? How do they
do this? Using some of the tools offered by neuro linguistic programming
(NLP), I set out to find out how. I discovered that people are very different
in the way they self-correct, at least according to the accounts they are
able to give of the process. Here is one native English speaker's reflections
on this matter:

When I am speaking Russian or German and waiting for a speaking turn
in a conversation, I will suddenly get an abstract picture of the shape
of the grammar I intend to use . . . When this happens my sentence usually
comes out correct . . . . My visual monitor serves me well, when it is
activated before I speak. However, if it switches on while I am in mid
sentence and allows me to see I am making a mistake, then I go to pieces
. . . I pause and stumble . . . . This is a very bad feeling. (As cited
in Brown, 1999, pp. 39-41.)

This speaker seems to see grammar as a visual entity. This is not always
the case. Here another English speaker describes what happens when she is
speaking Spanish:

If I am in mid sentence and I make a mistake I am aware of, I hear one
of two voices in my head. One is on the left side and it comes up from
below, curls round the left side of my head and then goes out in front
of me. This voice is kind, soft and low and it is very easy to accept correction
from it. The other moves in a directionally similar way but on my right
side. It is harsh, loud and accusatory and I hate accepting correction
from it. I fear it. (As cited in Brown, 1999, pp. 39-41)

Accurate, self-reported information about students' inner processes of
self-correction is of immediate practical use to the teacher. If I were
teaching Russian to the first English speaker, it would never make sense
to interrupt his conversational flow to correct anything: Why imitate the
dysfunctional side of his inner monitor? If I were teaching Spanish to the
second English speaker, I could do great harm by offering correction in
a voice that seemed loud or harsh to her.

Self-correction also fascinates the neurologists. They want to know what
exactly happens in the brain when someone self-corrects. They have used
brain scanning to discover that during error correction there is intense
activity in a curve of gray matter just under the frontal lobes, an area
known as the anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC. Researchers from Pittsburgh
University report that the ACC, when monitored with magnetic resonance imaging,
seems to activate whenever its owner gets a simple task wrong (Carter et
al., 1990). In their experiment, the subjects were asked to distinguish
between different letter sequences. As a language teacher, I am amazed to
learn that a discrete set of cells are activating the first English speaker's
abstract pictures about Russian grammar and setting off one or the other
of the second English speaker's correctional voices. The anterior cingulate
cortex is the actual location of the internal process that students have
described to me in conscious words.

If only I were properly competent to read and evaluate what most neurologists
are producing, week by week, month by month. Knowledge of what the brain
does when we self-correct, when we are corrected by a teacher, when we do
not notice our mistakes is central to how EFL teachers should go about teaching.
In my view, brain neurology already has offered and will increasingly offer
language teachers answers to questions we have not yet had the wit to ask
but which, unknowingly, we need answers to.


Brown, K. S. (1999, February 13). Ooops . . . sorry. New
Scientist, 161
, 39- 41.

Carter, C. S., Braver, T. S., Barch, D. M., Botvinick,
M. M., Noll, D., & Cohen, J. D. (1998, May 1). Anterior cingulate cortex,
error detection, and the online monitoring of performance. Science, 280,

Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes` error: Emotion, reason,
and the human brain.
New York: Avon.

O`Neill, R. (1971). Kernels Intermediate Harlow,
UK: Longman.