Neuroscience, Coaching and Language Learning: An interview with Rachel Paling of Efficient Language Learning
Neuroscience and Language Learning: What Does Neuroscience Tell Us About Learning and Why Should We Care?
Learner centredness has been an approach at work in TEFL and applied linguistics for many decades. What is learner centredness again? Put simply, it means we assess, consider and address the needs of the learners and their learning in our classroom. Our teaching and the approaches we use respond to that. We think we’ve got it, right? Nothing more we really need to know?
When we encounter something new and uncertain, our brain will quickly categorise it as a threat as opposed to anything good. It’s our ancient self-preservation device that sticks to the rule “better safe than sorry”. A threat state is a reactive state governed by the brain stem which is 300,000,000 years old. It’s often referred to as the lizard brain, unsurprisingly. Our brain stem sits down there at the back of our head and regulates our bodily functions, our fight, flight, freeze or faint reactions. These reactive states are the basis of stress.
Stress and The New
Ah, you say…now stress, that’s a factor to consider in our learners…and ourselves come to think of it! Our brain stem creates stress to make us run faster, freeze and fake death, so something won't gobble us up. Now, that was handy back in the day, and even in moments of danger now. However, this “threat-reward” brain isn't very flexible for us folk kicking about the suburbs in the 21st century. It can be an enormous inhibitor when dealing with new situations.
This part of the brain is being activated a lot more often than we realise. Rachel Paling is the founder and director of Neurolanguage Coaching®, which incorporates neuroscience, coaching and langauge learning methodologies. I asked Rachel what she had to say about our students’ ability to learn, the brain, and what we can do about it.
Survival Mechanisms and Our Ability to Learn
Rachel: “The survival mechanisms when triggered can significantly hinder our capacity to learn. In fact, research from 2017 from Rühr University, Bochum, Germany demonstrates that just one single dose of cortisol, the stress chemical, in the brain can significantly interfere with the function of the hippocampus, an essential area for our capacity to create memories and also affects neural plasticity.
Nowadays, we have so much wonderful information about the brain. I definitely I do think that as educators we need to fully comprehend it, albeit in simple terms, so that we can understand our learners better. It will in fact help our learners to understand themselves better and really explore how the learner learns best.”
Rachel Paling started teaching English as a Foreign Language to adults over 30 years ago. She completed a BA Honours in Law and Spanish (with distinction in spoken Spanish) at the University of Sheffield (UK), a Masters in Human Rights and Democratization (EMA) at the University of Padua, Italy and Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany and qualified as a UK Lawyer in 2003. She combined her teaching experience, her specialisation in business English, legal knowledge and entrepreneurial spirit to develop a career coaching top executives across Europe.
Neuroscience, Coaching and Language Learning
Rachel: “In the year 2000, I was working for a school in Germany as a business English language coach, but at that time the school could not fully explain to me what language coaching was. Some years later I decided to develop myself as a coach and in fact completed various coaching courses. Some of these were brain based coaching, created by David Rock who, in the 1990s, was really the pioneer connecting neuroscience and coaching.
I became an ICF credentialed ACC Coach and continued studying more about neuroscience and in particular, the brain and language. Personally, I taught myself Spanish in my teenage years and later taught myself both Italian and German through the experience of living in these countries, so language learning has always been a fascinating experience for me. Understanding neuroscience, cognitive psychology, even the new sciences for example like epigenetics, can now help to really understand what could potentially make the language learning process much more efficient and faster.”
An Accredited Coaching Course for Language Teachers
As a result of her experience, she created Neurolanguage Coaching® and has trained over 400 language teachers worldwide certifying them as Neurolanguage Coaches with her training course, accredited by the International Coach Federation USA. Her courses have been expanded to now include teacher training for teachers and leaders of any discipline.
In 2012 Rachel crystallised Neurolanguage Coaching into a solid programme, combining coaching, neuroscience and language learning within a definite framework which greatly enhances the language learning process. I piloted the program with my teachers in 2012 and then in 2013 delivered the first courses. Her company currently boasts a network of approximately 400 Neurolanguage coaches worldwide, in all different language combinations.
What is the Difference Between Neurolanguage Coaching and Other Teacher Training Approaches?
Having been in ELT for a long time, I was at first sceptical about what Neurolanguage Coaching® was. What was there to offer here that we aren’t already aware of and implementing as language teachers? Perhaps we weren’t aware of the science, but was this not a set of not-so-new-ideas with a new coat of paint? What needs are Neurolanguage Coaching® seeing that they believe aren’t being met?
Rachel: “This is a very interesting question and obviously there is a lot of scepticism about what we are doing and whether it is different or not.
I would say the first major difference is the awareness of the educator. How we deliver as a teacher or trainer is actually totally transformed when we deliver as a coach. As a coach we are nondirective, we do not tell people what to do and we fully enhance the autonomy of the learner.
Secondly, awareness also means awareness of the brain. We talk about neuroplasticity; the effect of the fight or flight status; the stressed brain; the interaction of the conscious with the subconscious and how we learn either explicitly or implicitly.
This also implies different brainwaves; the question of whether there is a potentially ideal learning state; what makes memories stick; the learning journey; the effect of social and emotional pain on the brain and essentially how the brain, when learning a target language, tries to connect and associate with the native structures already existing in the brain. The latter has been confirmed by the University of Nijwegen in 2016.
Motivaton and Breaking Through Roadblocks to Learning
So, as a Neurolanguage Coach the way we communicate with our learner is totally different. In addition, we have the ability to spontaneously coach our learner whenever necessary, troubleshooting roadblocks in the learning process, for example, negative beliefs, bad learning memories or even commitment issues. We bring out any necessary information relating to the brain whenever required and helpful for the learner.
We also have a definite structure to the process that addresses motivation and incorporates two very different goal settings: the mechanical goal setting relating to the grammatical side of the language and the mastery goal setting relating to the functional use of language. The whole process follows a clear framework and structure giving certainty from beginning to end.”
Why Coaching and not Teaching? What’s the difference? Aren’t all Teachers That Use Learner Centredness Also Coaches?
Rachel: “Actually, yes a lot of teachers follow learner centred approaches but ultimately do not change their own style of delivery as a teacher. Delivery is key. Whenever teachers to my course I always ask the question “how many of you like to be told what to do?”. Incredibly, 90% reply that they hate to be told what to do and yet as teachers we are constantly telling people what to do, so in fact we are not communicating in the brain friendly way and this could impact how people are receiving the information that we are trying to transfer.”
An Holistic Approach to Learning: A Conference with a Difference
What Can ELT Teachers Take Away From This Conference?
Rachel: “The third Neurolanguage learning conference is happening in Lisbon 15th to the 17th May 2019. My vision three years ago when I created this conference was to invite speakers from disciplines relating to the brain, the heart and intuition, so in fact the holistic human. We know that there are significant changes happening worldwide in education. The impact of the brain sciences is really developing the concept of neuro education. To me neuro education refers to the nervous system and neurons - and we have neurons all over the body not only in the brain. So, this conference is about asking ourselves the question as educators: What can we bring into the learning process that is going to enhance the learning?”
Cross Disciplinary Neurolanguage Learning Conference Speakers 2019
Speakers from the areas of neuroscience, neuro-feedback, heart science, emotional intelligence, practical intelligence, leadership coaching and language learning form part of the conference line-up . As a teacher, the idea of a conference that blurs the boundaries of ELT and reaches out into other disciplines for information and input really motivates me. ELT teachers who attend the conference will be able to take away knowledge of how to upgrade, enhance and improve the transfer of their expertise and knowledge to their learners, drawing out the best in them.
The conference will be recorded and the videos will be available on the conference website and the Neurolanguage Coaching websites. As an additional note, the videos from the first two years’ conferences are also available and may I say that we have over these last two years had the most incredible speakers and topics.