Social Interaction is Good for Learning a New Language, Social Isolation is Not

npj Science of Learning authors, Ping Li and Hyeonjeong Jeong, reveal why virtual environments benefit language learners for Behind the Paper⎮4 min read

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This is the era of Covid-19 when we have to practice social isolation and social distancing. This situation is depressing socially, emotionally, and economically, but you may not know that it also negatively impacts our language learning.

Interacting with people in person and being exposed to the environment in which those people use the language is essential for us to learn it. Remember how children acquire their native language (L1). Mommy says ‘spoon’ in the kitchen, the infant hears the word, looks at the spoon, inspects its shape, size, color, and grabs it and scoops food into her mouth. This is natural learning in social context with multimodal information (i.e., hearing, seeing, touching), and researchers have shown this is the effective (and perhaps the only) way for children to learn either L1 or a new language (e.g., Kuhl et al., 2003). Children use such interpersonal social contexts where they can integrate multiple signals including linguistic forms, their meaning, and the actions and intentions of the mother/caregiver/other speakers.

What about adults learning a second language (L2)? We all remember sitting in a classroom, reciting lists of words and phrases, linking the list to our L1 translation equivalents, memorizing dialogues, and translating sentences. Teachers and students work on ways to enhance better memory for the L2. Unfortunately, this kind of traditional classroom-based learning have not produced successful outcomes; and even if the students learned a large list of words and phrases and thought they are good at the language (e.g., having a good TOEFL score), the minute they get on a foreign soil, they fail to communicate effectively with people using the L2 they have learned in the classroom.

Recent evidence from cognitive and brain sciences demonstrates that adults should learn like children to acquire L2 through social interaction. Although they need not crawl around in the kitchen like infants do, their brains register and process L2 better if they learn through simulated or virtual social interactions, because social L2 learning produces neural activation in not just the brain’s language areas in the left hemisphere, but also in areas such as sensorimotor and multimodal association and theory of mind, often in the right hemisphere of the brain that has been associated with non-verbal, imagistic, or perception-action processing. More importantly, greater involvement of these right-hemisphere, non-verbal areas lead to greater L2 learning success and more long-lasting memory of the learned material. Therefore, social L2 learning may strengthen rich semantic representation of words and sentences referring to objects, concepts, actions, so that knowledge and memory of the new language becomes embodied, multimodal, richly contextualized, and even emotionally attached, in the same way as the child’s memory is for the L1. In their recent npj Science of Learning article, Li and Jeong (2020) reviewed some of the new exciting findings from neuroimaging studies that have examined social learning of L2. They discussed the effectiveness and importance of this type of L2 learning from interdisciplinary perspectives such as psychology, memory, cognition, and neuroscience.

It is difficult (or even infeasible) to provide adults with an equal language learning environment as the child’s, where they receive abundant multimodal information and social interactions while learning L2 like the child learning L1. Further, although immersion learning, that is, learning L2 in the country where it is spoken, is definitely good (see Pavlenko, 2015), not everyone has the resources and time to do so. Moreover, mandatory social isolation and distancing during the Covid-19 era make it much more difficult to travel and conduct real-world social interaction for L2 learning. New technologies aid us in this regard. Virtual Reality (VR), along with other social media platforms, hopefully will help ease some of the difficulties as explained in Li and Jeong (2020). In fact, a series of studies using VR have shown that learners acquire L2 more effectively than traditional classroom-based learning, and VR-based L2 learning has a positive impact on the brain, both functionally and anatomically. Although there is a great deal of individual variation in adult L2 learning, VR is particularly helpful to ‘struggling learners’. In the future, VR learning should be developed to suit individual learner’s characteristics (language background, age, proficiency, motivation, aptitude, etc.). We hope that the scientific findings as reviewed in Li and Jeong (2020) can also positively influence language policy, and people can spread the news about social L2 learning to their stakeholders, administrators, and policy makers as well as parents, students, and teachers in L2 education.


Please read the free and open access review article, The social brain of language: grounding second language learning in social interaction, published by npj Science of Learning. 

Ping Li

Professor, Penn State

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