By María Isabel Mata Monge - Education Degree student

Have you ever wondered why second language learners barely acquire the target language being taught after several years studying it at school? Well, I have. As an English coach for Costa Rican private schools, I have encountered many teaching styles while observing classes. Rules being the focus of the class, unrelated topics being taught, words and grammar explained in isolation are among the areas that help answer that question. As a result, students are unable to make brain connections that allow the information to be transferred to the long-term memory. Understanding that students need the right input (stimuli), language exposure (frequency) and schema activation (strength of connections) is essential to improve language teaching in our country.

Learning is a cognitive process, thus Birjandi and Sabah (2012) explain that “all cognitive processes take place in the brain; the mind is nothing more than the grouping of these processes” (p. 63). These processes are the brain connections that happen within a learner's brain while acquiring a second language. Therefore, based on the Connectionism Theory, “learning essentially is change in the strength of these connections” (Ghaemi and Faruji, 2011, p. 45). Learning always involves strengthening, modifying, and creating new brain connections, thus teachers can implement this framework by applying different strategies such as providing positive feedback, recycling structures and words, using games to review previous topics, using visual aids and cues like flashcards, using demonstrations and graphic organizers, building learning blocks, discussing real-life situations, and especially preparing well-structured lessons where the information is linked, among others. As a result, neuronal connections will be trained to produce correct responses; as a direct result learning becomes controlled, non-linear, gradual, natural (not governed by rules) and meaningful.

Although some may argue against the role of frequency of input in language learning and may say that repetition drills are outdated (Saville-Troike, 2012, p. 86), it is also true that frequency can be presented in different ways and through diverse class activities that allow exposure to take place under different contexts and topics. However, I do agree that more research should be done to underline the effects of frequency in language learning. Another counterargument, according to Khatib and Sabah (2012), is that Connectionism fails “to explicate that human beings possess knowledge that goes beyond the input” (p. 9). Even though this theory cannot explicitly explain what learners actually know or what connections they have already made in their brains, so cannot the other theories, as we are faced with the logical problem of “What exactly does the L2 learner know?” A question that has yet to be answered by second language acquisition experts. Finally, it is stated by Khatib and Sabah (2012) that “it appears to be difficult to understand how connectionism can tackle such inferential capacities that are capable of engendering an indefinitely large number of negative beliefs” (p. 9). Even though there is some truth to that, pedagogical mediation makes sure such “negative beliefs” are rectified and prevented.

Connectionism explains how learners recall the information being taught and thus being able to respond using the target language. Neuronal connections are responsible for learning and memory, therefore, when learners connect words to phrases and those to other words and phrases, learning takes place. It is undeniable that human beings response to stimuli, hence, with the right language learning stimuli, learners are going to construct their responses and react based on that stimuli, and so being able to produce in the target language. Lastly, this framework can help connect information to learn better. So, let’s make connections for better language conventions.

MOXIE es el Canal de ULACIT (, producido por y para los estudiantes universitarios, en alianza con el medio periodístico independiente, con el propósito de brindarles un espacio para generar y difundir sus ideas.  Se llama Moxie - que en inglés urbano significa tener la capacidad de enfrentar las dificultades con inteligencia, audacia y valentía - en honor a nuestros alumnos, cuyo “moxie” los caracteriza.

  • Birjandi, P., & Sabah, S. (2012). A Review of the Language-Thought Debate: Multivariant Perspectives. BRAIN: Broad Research in Artificial Intelligence & Neuroscience, 3(4), 56–68.
  • Ghaemi, F., & Faruji, L. F. (2011). Connectionist Models: Implications in Second Language Acquisition. BRAIN: Broad Research in Artificial Intelligence & Neuroscience, 2(3), 45–51.
  • Khatib, M., & Sabah, S. (2012). On Major Perspectives on Language Acquisition: Nativism, Connectionism, and Emergentism. BRAIN: Broad Research in Artificial Intelligence & Neuroscience, 3(4), 5–12.
  • Saville-Troike, M. (2012). Introducing second language acquisition. (2 Ed.). New York, USA: Cambridge-University Press