Brain Plasticity, Multiple Intelligences, and Foreign Languages

Second Language Acquisition and

Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory and Brain Plasticity

Much has been written about how foreign languages should be taught and what the optimum age is for a student to begin second language acquisition. Maftoon and Sarem (2012) review the importance of the intellectual abilities that student learners bring to the classroom and their influence on the learning process. In their discussion of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, Maftoon and Sarem (2012) point out that not all learners’ intellectual capabilities are equal and that the same lecture can be received and assimilated in different ways depending on the students’ intelligence aptitudes. Maftoon and Sarem (2012) point out that “according to Gardner’s theory of ‘multiple intelligences’, people vary in terms of eight types of intelligence, namely visual, verbal, mathematical, kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and rhythmic intelligence” (p. 1233). These different types of intelligences help to define how students will learn a foreign language, how fast and efficiently they will learn it, and how it will affect their motivation in learning it. In addition, research into brain plasticity has begun to dismantle former assumptions about when and how students learn languages. It is important to review the various findings about Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences and Brain Plasticity in reference to foreign language learning in order to improve our understanding of Second Language Acquisition.

Formerly, intelligence was mainly measured by focusing on the logical and linguistic intelligence of students until Gardner proposed that there were many more types of intelligence that were just as valid. The IQ tests tend to focus on analytic intelligence because it is easily measured and easily taught with the current methods of teaching. These tests affected the teaching methods of all content areas. However, there is a lot of controversy about the IQ tests being ethnically or racially biased and their failure to capture other types of intelligence such as creative and practical intelligence. In addition, the tests are administered at one age period of time in the child’s life which does not accommodate for late bloomers, early starters, children held back a year in school, or brain plasticity. The stigma of the IQ score stays with the child throughout his/her academic career and life. People still brag or bemoan their IQ scores late into adult life, regardless of whether they have lived up to their predicted potential or have become classic underachievers.

Because of the research on Second Language Acquisition and Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, teachers now incorporate different methods of engaging students in the learning process. For example, “Suggestopedia uses drama and visual aids as keys to unlock a students learning potential; in this approach music plays the greatest role in facilitating learning (musical intelligence” (Maftoon & Sarem, 2012, p. 1239). “Total Physical Response, however, emphasizes language learning through physical action (bodily/kinesthetic intelligence” (Maftoon & Sarem, 2012, p. 1239). Teachers are encouraged to stimulate as many of the multiple intelligences as possible in their lesson plans so that students will have the benefit of developing both their stronger and weaker intelligences. The better the students develop all of their intelligences, the more well-rounded they will become. It will also serve to activate many different neural pathways to the information that the students are trying to store when learning a new language. However, Gardner’s theory assumes that the student has a critical time period and a limited amount of time and intelligence to learn a second language effectively.

In addition to Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence work, there have been advances in brain research and brain imaging that demonstrate that there are physical differences exhibited by the brain when learning new foreign languages and their corresponding sound systems. Schlegel, Rudelson, and Tse (2012) researched the role of brain plasticity in adult learners of a second foreign language. Previous theories held that the brain develops in childhood and adolescent and that after that period of time second language acquisition or the learning of new knowledge becomes limited because there is a critical period for learning new languages. Their study focused on eleven English speakers who took an intensive course in Chinese for nine months. Brain imaging has allowed researchers to see what is happening inside the brain instead of guessing from second hand observation. Previous theories held that language learning was limited to restricted areas in the brain. “Recent neuroimaging research has challenged this view by uncovering a widespread network of language processing areas in both hemispheres of the brain” (Schlegel et al., 2012, p. 1664). Second language acquisition theories are being challenged from all sides by different areas of science. Schlegel et al.’s (2012) research “…used longitudinal diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to track the structural white matter changes…” and “…found changes in white matter both within and beyond those regions identified in current neural models of language processing” (p. 1664). The results of the study found “systematic, learning-dependent changes in white matter tracts between known language processing regions and additionally in a bihemispheric frontal network whose axons pass through the genu of the corpus callosum…” (p. 1669). “These findings indicate that structural plasticity plays a role in language learning even among adults” (Schlegel et al., 2012, p. 1669). Therefore, the brain is not a static organ that ceases to grow and develop once a certain chronological age is attained. This adds a new dimension to the debate of Age of Acquisition in language learning and current theories of second language acquisition.

Golestani, Molko, Dehaene, LeBihan, and Pallier (2007) found that “…the ability to distinguish them [new phonemes] relies on perceptual and neural systems designed to process very rapidly changing information” (p. 575). They demonstrated that the white matter (WM) density in the auditory region of the left Heschl’s gyrus (HG) was greater with those who were faster learners of foreign speech sounds than those who were slower. Golestani et al. (2007) also proposed that differences in WM volume can be due to greater myelination and/or a greater number of WM fibers connecting HG to regions such as the secondary auditory cortex, as well as to other brain regions involved in speech and speech sound processing, such as the parietal and frontal cortices. If the differences are due to greater myelination, this would allow faster conduction of neural signals, resulting in more efficient neural processing…” (p. 580)

Although Golestani et al. (2007) demonstrated that structural differences exist in those who learn languages faster, it was not demonstrated that those differences were the cause of the faster learning or if the structural differences were developed due to learning new languages in the first place. As Golestani et al. (2007) observed, “interestingly, larger GM volumes of HG have been found bilaterally in musicians compared with nonmusicians” (p. 580). Does the learning of the new language or instrument develop the brain? Schlegel et al.’s (2012) research would seem to support that the plasticity of the brain itself changes the structure and increases the grey and white matter as the student learns new skills and information. Does the brain really cease to develop once a chronological age is reached? Golestani et al. (2007) did not address this question.

Theories of second language acquisition have held that the brain looses the ability to effectively learn new languages once the student becomes an adult. Steinhauer, White, and Drury (2008) worked with miniature versions of natural languages and artificial miniature languages to evaluate the way brains react to perceived grammatical errors. Their work concentrated on the question of age of acquisition (AoA) of second language acquisition and the so-called critical period of language acquisition for attaining native like proficiency. Their electrophysiological data addressed the issues concerning neurocognitive mechanisms and critical periods in the acquisition of L2 grammar. Their research is important because of the debate that native speaking foreign language teachers are naturally better teachers than non-native speakers. It also is important because if it is true that AoA matters, then American students who begin learning a second language in high school or university will never be able to hope to attain enough fluency to be able to use that skill and compete with native speakers in the workforce.

Steinhauer et al. (2008) examined event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to see how the brain deals with language. “Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) reflect the real-time electrophysiological brain dynamics of cognitive processes with an excellent time resolution in the range of milliseconds” (Steinhauer et al., 2008. p. 16). The article reviewed the research of Japanese-German bilinguals and French-Chinese bilinguals. It was interesting to note that the older learns who ranged in age from 12 to 36 years showed results consistent with their proficiency of the L2 language. In other words, those with higher proficiency in the L2 language showed more native-like brain responses to grammar violations “…that was statistically indistinguishable from that of the native speakers” (Steinhauer et al., 2008, p. 22). The same pattern was found with English participants learning Spanish, another study of Japanese learners of English, and another of German learners of Italian. All of these late AoA learners of high proficiency showed the same brain patterns in recognizing grammar errors as native speakers. “In summary, the foregoing findings strongly suggest that it is possible for L2 learners to elicit native-like ERP patterns” (Steinhauer et al., 2008, p. 24).

Hinton, Miyamoto, and Della-Chiesa (2008) state that ” A major contribution of neuroscience to education is the scientific confirmation that the brain develops through a dynamic and continuous interaction between biology and experience” (p. 88). Teachers must incorporate Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence theories into their lesson plans in order to stimulate as much of the brain as possible and encourage its development and growth. “Skill theory recognizes that proficiency can be reached through multiple developmental pathways” (Hinton et al., 2008, p. 88) and that the brain changes and develops over time. This understanding of the brain’s plasticity and development contradicts labeling children and language learners at a given point in time and stigmatizing them with that label for the rest of their lives. As Hinton et al. (2008) explain, synaptic “connections with relatively high activity are stabilized and strengthened, while connections with relatively low activity are weakened and, eventually, eliminated. As connections between neurons are modified, the brain is gradually shaped to reflect experience” (p. 89).

Human beings are complex creations and mankind is still learning about how students learn and how the brain reacts to different learning situations. As science becomes more advanced with neural imaging, the research is requiring old theories to be reevaluated. Policy makers try to mainstream the learning experience as if all students emerge from a few molds and the molds forever determine what that student will be. However, “…data support the emerging view that the adult brain retains a robust capacity for reorganization with learning. Like a muscle that grows with use, the brain appears capable of expanding the functionality of networks involved in learning by altering the underlying anatomy through myelination” (Schlegel et al., 2012, p. 1669). Both children and adults have the capacity to learn new skills and reshape their brains. Science will probably always be striving to understand how the brain functions, learns and develops. Teachers have the privilege of helping students to develop their multiple intelligences and to learn new skills. As a tutor, I have helped many floundering students who were written off by their teachers to learn the necessary math skills to continue on to graduation. The brain is capable and the teacher must be willing to invest time and skill in helping the student to learn.


Hinton, C., Miyamoto, K., & Della-Chiesa, B. (2008). Brain research, learning and emotions: Implications for education research, policy and practice. European Journal of Education, 43(1), 87-103. doi: 10.1111/j.1465-3435.2007.00336.x

Golestani, N., Molko1, N., Dehaene, S., LeBihan, D., & Pallier, C. (2007). Brain structure predicts the learning of foreign speech sounds. Cerebral Cortex, 17, 575-582. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhk001

Maftoon, P. & Sarem, S. N. (2012). The realization of Gardner’s multiple intelligences (MI) theory in second language acquisition (SLA). Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 3(6), 1233-1241. doi:10.4304/jltr.3.6.1233-1241

Schlegel, A. A., Rudelson, J. J., & Tse, P. U. (2012). White matter structure changes as adults learn a second language. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 24(8), 16641670. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00240

Steinhauer, K., White, E. J., & Drury, J. E. (2009). Temporal dynamics of late second language acquisition: Evidence from event-related brain potentials. Second Language Research, 25(1), 13-41. doi: 10.1177/0267658308098995



Author: foggydreamer

Foggy indulges her life-long passion for languages while working and having fun. Runescape has provided an immersive world for exploring personal and professional activities.

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