Technology, Brain Power, & the Power of Language Learning

Language is the key to learning! Language is the key to reading! Language is the key to cognition, stated Dr. Catherine Snow, in ‘Time to Act’. Harvard University, (2010). (1)

The basis of learning, comprehension and reading is LANGUAGE! Researchers worldwide agree that language is a foundation on which learning resides. New neuroscience research illustrates that multiple language learning at any age advantages the learner. The ability to problem-solve, multi task, focus attention and prioritize are enhanced by learning multiple languages. The question is, how? What is the most effective way to develop language/s?

K-12 Education is inundated with technology for every purpose imaginable. Tech education marketers hawk the newest program or product promising students will learn math through games, reading through phonics audio downloads and multiple languages by accessing apps which feature kids’ language programs on tablets, iPads and TV screens. Advertising is relentless and access is ubiquitous. BUT, does technology enhance multiple language learning?

Recent Education Neuroscience provides key insights into these questions and illuminates deeper foundational aspects of language learning and cognition heretofore unavailable.

Babies are born universal linguists. They acquire specific neural connections for language the last ten weeks of gestation and enter the world hearing every sound in every language spoken. (2)

Continue reading to learn more about Kathleen Leos’ research….

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Using specialized fMRI’s or brain imaging equipment, researchers discovered that babies begin distinguishing language/s by head turning toward their mother’s voice at 3-6 months old. This is the natural neural developmental process for any child regardless of race, ethnicity, income level, culture, country or language/s spoken. When more than one language is spoken in the home, infants easily recognize language differences and are not confused. They respond to the specific language spoken by each individual when speech sounds, words and patterns in each language are clearly articulated. Additionally, learning multiple languages simultaneously does NOT inhibit the development of either. (3) In fact, demonstrated achievement results illustrate that students proficient in two languages outperform any other student group in 3rd grade reading. (4)


How does the brain acquire language/s best? Neuroscientists conducted in-depth studies to determine if technology using adult speech articulation on a computer screen or computer-generated language programs is preferable to acquiring languages through simple in-person human interaction. Empirical findings revealed that babies learning language/s by interacting with human faces on computer screens show ZERO% cognitive activity in the brain or NO learning, whereas children who were held and had interactive, in-person facetime language exchanges increased language development and cognition 700%. (5)

Ongoing studies indicate that either one-to one or small group, in-person human interaction is fundamental to language development regardless of the learners’ age, background, or culture.


When is the optimum time to introduce technology during a learner’s language development? Technology used to support and supplement explicit language instruction is effective when the learner is about 8 years old or in 2nd or 3rd grade.


Finally, several fMRI studies focused on the impact and effectiveness of children’s TV programming. The results are astounding. The only television programs that have a positive long-term effect on children’s learning in general and language learning specifically are Sesame Street, Blues Clues, Clifford and Dora the Explorer. (6)


Language is fundamental to learning and acquiring multiple languages increases cognition and academic success. Therefore, educators grounded in neuroscience’s language acquisition ‘theory to practice’ research and instructional strategies must lead the way. Research illustrates that languages are best acquired through direct, explicit, one-to-one interaction with parents, caregivers and teachers during the initial language learning process. Supplemental technology support is effective when introduced later. Regardless of program approach, time in program or the newest technological advances; it’s quality interactive in-person instruction that counts!


  1. Time To Act: An Agenda for Advancing Adolescent Literacy for College and Career Success (Carnegie Corporation of New York, 2009)
  2. Kuhl, Patrica K. (2000). Colloquium: A New View of Language Acquisition, PNAS October 24, 2000 vol 97/ no. 22 11850-11857 15(3), 396-419.
  3. Petitto LA, Kovelman I, Harasymowycz U. Bilingual language development: Does learning the new damage the old?. Abstracts of the Society for Research in Child Development; Tampa, FL. 2003.
  4. Age of first bilingual language exposure as a new window into bilingual reading development .Kovelman I, Baker SA, Petitto LA Biling (Camb Engl). 2008 Jul 1; 11(2):203-223.
  5. Kuhl, Patricia K., Tsao, Feng-Ming., Lui, Huei-Mei., Foreign language experience in infancy, PNAS July 22, 2003 100 (15) 9096-9101; (5A) The linguistic genius of babies (Patricia Kuhl | TEDxRainier)
  6. Children Wired for Better and For Worse, Daphne Bavelier, C. Shawn Green, Matthew W. G. Dye, PMC 2011 Sep 12. Published in final edited form as: Neuron. 2010 Sep 9; 67(5): 692–701.

Kathleen Leos
Author: Kathleen Leos

Kathleen Leos is the President and CEO of The Global Institute for Language and Literacy Development, LLC, (GILD). Prior to establishing this new endeavor, Ms. Leos served six year (2002-2007) presidential appointment as the Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director to the US Department of Education's Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) established by Congress in the 2002 No Child Left Behind-Title III legislation. In that position, Ms. Leos served as principal advisor to the U.S. Secretaries of Education, Dr. Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings, on all matters related to ELL students, and developed regulations, policies and procedures to create a national education and accountability infrastructure in 50 states, DC and Puerto Rico for the 5.5 million Limited English Proficient students who grace America's classrooms K-12. The six year effort included assisting states in developing: new English language proficiency standards, aligned ELP assessments, research-based instructional strategies to train teachers to instruct language development and literacy skills simultaneously, and provide communities and parents with effective education models that support ELL high academic achievement. The goal is to create a national education system that includes ELLs in state accountability systems for the first time in the history of US K-12 public schools. Ms....

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