Communication, emotion and identity in the acquisition and learning of Spanish as a second language

FFI2017-83166-C2-1-R. UNIVERSIDAD DE ALCALÁ

In its report of the 22 May 2018, the European Commission published a report on the “Council Recommendation on a comprehensive approach to teaching and learning of languages”. As well as urging Member States to increase investment in language training, it called for research into new forms of learning and support approaches and their application to improving teaching processes.

This project aims to build on recent findings, contributions and achievements in brain science to better understand the processes of second language acquisition and, in particular, to generate theoretical frameworks to guide teaching, support teachers and improve outcomes.

This is a coordinated project led by the University of Alcalá, which is based on two fundamental axes: the expression of emotion and the construction of identity.

LANGUAGE, EMOTION AND IDENTITY

Language and identity

Language acquisition involves the mental construction of a socially shared representation of the world, as well as the construction of one’s own identity. All this is the result of the socio-cultural environment, but also of conscious and non-conscious emotional factors. The speaker creates an affective relationship with language because it is a reflection of himself, because through language he shows who he is, what group he belongs to, how he understands reality, what he feels, how he behaves; in short, with language the individual constructs and transmits his socio-cultural, existential and emotional identity. If we learn a second language that does not allow us to construct, experience and exhibit our identity, we will not be able to feel it.

Nowdays, we know that languages are highly emotional products.

Language and emotion

Almost all the words in our mother tongue are emotionally charged. There is no linguistic meaning that is not sifted by the emotional, hence their evocative power. During the process of mother tongue acquisition, words are incorporated with experiential and emotional meaning, which are responsible for their anchoring in lexical networks and memory. However, this does not seem to happen in L2, since the simple transfer of a word from one language to the second does not imprint all its representational values on the new term. This leads us to think of the need for teaching approaches that relate classroom activities to the self that feels and thinks, so that these words take on a meaning within the framework of one’s own identity. In short, it is about enabling associations of words and linguistic context with the stimuli of our environment and our emotional development. Experience and identity are constituent parts of the development of linguistic competence in another language.

Language teaching must use strategies that seek to involve the learner emotionally in what they are communicating.

Language and evaluation

Learning an L2 is a cognitive and emotional activity subject to constant evaluation of stimuli, which, in turn, is the result of conscious and unconscious mental processes that are based on emotional foundations and affect decision-making and coping. Positive perception and positive evaluation of the language and its use as an element of identity and affective communication influence the learner’s attitude, contribute to more effective and lasting learning and predispose the individual to continue learning. For this to happen, it is necessary to expose the learner to a language in which they see themselves as unique individuals who are part of an environment and with which they maintain emotional connections, as well as to sensory-rich learning processes that involve them cognitively, affectively and experientially. In short, it is a matter of attending to some factors related to the learning brain.

Language, brain and learning

This project aims to take advantage of recent findings, contributions and achievements in brain science to better understand the processes of second language acquisition in order to generate theoretical frameworks to guide teaching, to help teachers and to improve outcomes.

Knowing how the learning brain works will pave the way for the development of effective methodological proposals and strategies.

Numerous neuroscientific studies lead us to understand the importance for language learning of aspects such as the close relationship between the brain, the body and the environment; perception and sensory experience as conditioning factors in the representation of reality in the brain; the importance of the unconscious mind in processing and decision-making; the new paradigms on memory and its distribution; emotion as a fundamental motor of the organism and as responsible for learning, memory, identity construction, life in society, etc.; language comprehension, the assignment of meanings and their distribution in the brain; the corporeality of language; the role of mirror neurons in linguistic action, i.e. in the social construction of discourse, etc.

WHY DO WE NEED THIS PROJECT

In the last few decades, second language teaching methodology has been offering new approaches and perspectives which have been accompanied by innovative, multidimensional and conceptually complex models of instruction (competency-based learning, metacognitive strategies, flipped classroom, formative assessment, etc., etc.). However, this has not brought about a clear and visible change in the success of language learning, which makes us think that it is convenient to pay attention to other factors and, especially, to understand how the brain learns and how language functions in the learning brain.

Likewise, much research has been done on motivation and its importance in second language learning, which is unquestionable, but not as much attention has been paid to something even more unquestionable: the identity value of languages. We think that the construction of identity in the L2 has a much greater impact than motivation; in other words, it is more important to recognise oneself in that language, to find oneself in it, than the more or less functional reasons that motivate this learning.

The fundamental objective is to carry out in-depth research on the learning of Spanish as an L2 that addresses neurobiological, cognitive, cultural and linguistic factors, with the aim of incorporating relevant knowledge from these areas into teaching proposals and evaluating their impact on identity construction, expressive skills and degree of coping.

Our starting point is the belief that if the learner establishes emotional links with the L2 and uses it as a product of their identity, akin to their beliefs, experiences and emotions, their expressive efficacy will be greater, as will their degree of coping (their commitment to learning and to the use of the language). To achieve this, it is necessary to work both on the emotional dimension and on the linguistic repertoire being learnt.

We are interested in 1) verifying the relevance for second language learning of some findings on the functioning of the brain, especially those related to the emotional dimension; 2) knowing how it takes place and what aspects influence the construction of a genuine sociolinguistic identity in Spanish/L2; 3) establishing principles and guidelines that favour effective, satisfactory and long-lasting language learning.

Goals

EXPECTED GOALS

Our aim is to develop a theoretical framework for learning Spanish as a second language -transferable to other languages- which provides, on the one hand, a methodological approach, validated by experimental studies and based on neuroscientific findings, and on the other, instruments of analysis, repertoires of linguistic content and models of action which endow the language, from the first levels of learning, with identity and affective meanings and unique discursive modes.

Scientific impact

The implementation of this project will benefit the progress of research into the role of the emotional component in language learning and in the construction of identity, an aspect that has so far received little attention, although it is now arousing enormous interest.

It will make linking linguistic studies and neurosciences studies possible and thus bring together multidisciplinary perspectives. It will open up a new, innovative, scientifically-backed line of work, which will contribute to the search for answers to the complex phenomenon of language learning and use.

It will offer a promising scenario for the creation of a cross-community research group on language, emotion and identity, which aspires to grow and consolidate within our country, as well as to establish cooperation links with other groups abroad.

Social and educational impact

This project attempts to find a solution to an educational problem affecting society: the abandonment of and disinterest in second languages, since language learning is, beyond an academic or institutional requirement, a necessity in today’s society.
This will be possible if the teaching and learning processes and language programmes are improved, for this will lead to an improvement in the expressive (and communicative) skills of learners of Spanish/L2 and, in a more general sense, in other second languages.

Improvement of the integration processes

The project aims to generate greater awareness of the process of identity construction in which immigrant populations find themselves, both in a personal and instituional level. With regard to the former, we hope to achieve a higher level of self-awareness of the expression of one’s own emotional and social identity as an incentive to integration (and not as a form of isolation). Concerning institutions, the results obtained could be used for a series of actions such as: to carry out more respectful intervention protocols regarding the emotional intelligence and cultural diversity of the target population (immigrants) and to apply these protocols to different institutional fields (social, political, educational, cultural and religious).