Volume I - 1993

Imagination in Second Language Acquisition
by James J. Asher, San Jose State University

        Dr. James J. Asher, Professor of Psychology, has developed in 25 years of research, a world famous approach to second language learning that is successful with children and adults acquiring European, Oriental, Indian and Semitic languages. The British Broadcasting Company filmed his work for a worldwide television documentary which can be seen in America on the PBS program, Nova. Dr. Asher has received multiple awards for teaching excellence, including the 1992-93 Outstanding Professor Award from San Jose State University. His credits include a long list of articles, books, and documentary films. He is a featured speaker at several hundred schools and universities from Stanford to New York University, from the University of Alaska to the University of Hawaii and Cambridge University in England. His current book to be published later this year has the exciting title: The Super School of the 21st Century: We Can Have It Now!

        Here is a string of symbols without meaning to an English speaker: "Hutilkitaabalataula." But to 100 million people in the world, that was a sentence communicating this message: "Put the book on the table."

        To the celebrated linguist, Noam Chomsky, what makes "Hutilkitaabaltaula" a sentence to some people and a non-sentence to others is the most fascinating of all riddles because if we can discover what makes a sentence a sentence, we will have solved the mystery of human language. One piece of this puzzle has to do with imagination. Without imagination, there would be no language.

        Here is how I think it works: Any language has the capacity to generate an infinite number of sentences. The key word is "infinite." The human mind seems to have no understanding about the concept of infinity. For example, in the set of all numbers, we can picture the first number in the series as " 1," but what is the last number? Even the notion that there is a "last" number feels strange because of the contradiction that if a "last" number exists, the series is not infinite. But how can there not be a last number? Every event in our experience has a beginning and an end. Then, to complicate the puzzle, no one knows whether that "last" number (if it exists) is odd or even.

        Language is analogous to the set of all numbers. There is no "last "sentence, and, as another interesting twist, there is no "first" sentence. There are just sentences.

        The mystery is this: How can children or adults in any culture sample different sentences in a target language and understand the multiple patterns from which sentences are created? The key word is, "patterns." Notice that each person does not have to sample the identical sentences in a fixed sequence from the population of sentences, but all, after sufficient sampling, discern the identical patterns from which all sentences are created in a target language. I suggest that discerning the patterns is an imaginary process.

        In the sampling of sentences, patterns become transparent, but how? I believe the Total Physical Response approach gives some insight into how this works. Consider this example:

Hut il kitaab a la taula. (Put the book on the table.)
Hut IL warah a la taula. (Put the paper on the table.)
Hut IL suhaan a la taula. (Put the dish on the table.)
Imshee al kursi. (Walk to the chair.)
Imshee al taula. (Walk to the table.)
Imshee al baab. (Walk to the door.)

        If you act out those sentences upon hearing them from a native speaker who models the action with you, then you will now be able to understand dozens of novel sentences, ones you have never heard before such as:

Hut IL kursi a la taula.
Hut IL kitaab a la kursi.
Hut IL warah a la kitaab.
Hut IL taula a la suhaan.
Imshee al baab wa hut IL baab al kursi.

        Incidentally, you will also instantly understand that the last sentence was "nonsensical" even though it is a legitimate sentence in the target language. (The sentence was: "Walk to the door and put the door on the chair.") Notice that with an input of only six sentences, crucial patterns become transparent so that non-existent sentences, never heard before, are also understood. In fact, as Garcia (1993) has pointed out, ten sentences with ten different elements in each sentence can be rearranged into more than three million patterns, many of which are legitimate sentences in the target language. With only a small input, we achieve a gigabyte of output.

        The learner can detect what is and what is not a legitimate sentence. Clearly, the secret of language acquisition is in pattern detection.

Patterns, Patterns, Patterns: What is a Pattern?

        Patterns do not exist since we cannot point to them, touch them, see them, hear them or feel them. We cannot use our senses to detect a pattern since it is more than the sum of its parts. For example, there is no such thing as a phoneme. It is nonexistent if you attempt to find it in some physical measurement such as a voice recognition device that converts sound waves into a moving pen that draws on paper revolving on a drum. The phoneme, which is the smallest change in sound that produces a change in meaning, is easily illustrated with pairs of words such as: ball and hall or band and hand or sand and land.

        If you examine ball and hall on the voice recorder, you will not discover any reliable physical evidence showing when the curves made by your voice shifted from ball to hall. The phoneme seems to be a product of our imagination. We create a change in a pattern from ball to hall that has no corresponding physical imprint. An analogy would be a table. There is no such thing as a "table." No one has ever seen a table. We have seen specific examples from which we seem to "abstract" the concept of table. This suggests that all abstractions are products of imagination since they do not exist in the real world.

        As another illustration, if someone, who is non-mechanical, has a problem starting the car and lifts the hood, there is nothing to be seen. The person has no concepts or abstractions which allows one to "see" what is causing the car not to start. All patterns are invisible to this individual. In looking under the hood, all one sees is a chaotic-looking collection of wires, tubes, and other mechanical devices, but what do they mean? Without patterns in the imagination, there is no meaning.

        Gestalt psychologists used the concept of a pattern to explain the process of learning. The instant one perceives the pattern, according to the Gestaltists, learning is complete. Compare the Gestalt approach with the S-R learning theorists who dominate educational psychology with the picture of learning as an incremental process in which one associates elements until they bond together in memory after many, many exposures. Learning to the SR psychologists is a slow, step by step procedure that is complete only after one is exposed to the input for many trials.

        Recent discoveries in brain research allow us to sort out the controversy in learning theories that occupied the attention of researchers for 80 years. For example, experimental evidence suggests that, indeed, as clinicians such as Broca believed more than one hundred years ago from observations of brain damaged patients, each hemisphere of the brain seems to have a different function.

        The right brain (for right-handed people) is a pattern detector. It sorts through incoming sensory data searching for patterns much like the exciting new research in astronomy that slowly traverses the sky with a huge electronic ear that scans millions of random radio signals coming in from space, looking for patterns which would reveal the existence of intelligent life on other planets. Incidentally, any radio signal that is non-random suggests a transmission from an intelligent source.

        The right brain can detect a pattern in one exposure and if it chooses, hold the pattern in memory indefinitely without editing. This is the principle that explains the extraordinary skill of mnemonic experts who can be introduced to 500 people in an audience and recall the first and last name of each individual. When the memory experts are first introduced to an individual, they create in their imagination, a pattern, usually a bizarre pattern, that contains a picture of the person and the first and last names.

        For example, if the person's name is John Smith, the memory whiz may instantly create in imagination, a picture of the individual with a long, black beard and old fashioned clothing, sitting on the "john." The next time they see John Smith, the picture flashed again on the cognitive screen suggesting the first name of "John" and then the beard and clothing suggest a box of Smith Brothers Cough Drops, and hence the last name of "Smith." Since the right brain does no editing, it will accept any pattern no matter how crazy or outrageous. In fact, the more the pattern deviates from reality, the faster it can be retrieved. As an illustration, the imaginary picture could have been a gigantic box of Smith Brothers Cough Drops with each of the brothers sitting on a "john." (Incidentally, the next time you see these cough drops in a store, I predict that you will see a picture of each brother sitting on a "john" and you will then remember reading this article.)

        The left brain, for contrast, is the editor. It's specialized function is to find the flaws. It's job is to find fault_to detect imperfections- to gather evidence that an idea will not work. It's mission is a reality test of novel ideas to insure that we will not be harmed or deceived. It is dedicated to keeping us safe and sane. It is on automatic so that anything new, novel, or unfamiliar is instantly filtered through the flaw detector of the left brain.

How the Brain Guides Learning

        Of course, both the Gestaltists and the SR Theorists were on target. Both were accurate in their models of learning. The only difference was that the Gestaltists were looking at learning from the perspective of the right brain, and the SR researchers were focused upon learning when it is processed through the left brain. Here is how it works: If information is presented in a dramatic pattern with motion, learning can be on the first exposure with long-term retention. The reason, of course, is that the pattern is input to the right hemisphere of the brain. A classic example is the metaphor.

        Any effective teacher, preacher or politician will continually switch from the left to the right brain with a metaphor. The Former President, Ronald Reagan, was a master at brainswitching using metaphors such as this to explain the national debt: It is difficult to determine the difference between a million dollars and a trillion dollars, but picture this in your imagination_if I was holding a stack of 1,000 dollars bills in this hand, I would be a millionaire if the stack was six inches high. If I had 1,000 dollar bills in this hand, I would be a trillionaire if the stack was sixty seven miles high.

        Another contemporary master of brainswitching is H. Ross Perot who used this metaphor: The tax code is like an inner tube with a thousand patches.

The Secret of Zero Stress,
Long-Term Retention, and First Trial Learning

        My hypothesis is that no genuine learning can happen until there is a brainswitch from the left to the right brain. "Genuine" means that the learning happens on the first exposure with zero stress and long-term retention.

        Many language instructors have the illusion that left brain learning strategies are effective. Examples are pronunciation exercises, dialog memorizations, pattern drills, and grammar explanations. The evidence shows that only 4% of those who attempt a second language with a left brain "teaching people to talk" approach, continue to fluency (Asher, 1993). Those few who are successful with a left brain input often become language teachers themselves who are baffled that others cannot follow in their academic footsteps. "After all, I did it; why can't you do it?"

        I believe that the 4% who threaded their way through traditional language courses for four, five or six years succeeded because, as individuals, without teacher assistance, they were able automatically and effortlessly to switch from the left to the right brain. This insight came from a colleague who acquired a second language in school and went on to become the head of the modern language department in a major university. "I'm curious to know how you did it," I asked him.

        His explanation was that "Listen and repeat after me" exercises were not "work" for him. It was play. He enjoyed trying to make the sounds (probably because he was immediately successful). He did not perceive the activity as a threat. Also, as he drove to or from class, he enjoyed creating conversations in the target language with an imaginary friend. The boundary lines of the classroom activity was not from bell-ring to bell-ring, but continued as an intrinsically pleasurable event outside of class periods. An exciting thesis for a research project would be to interview others who acquired a second language exclusively in school to discover how crucial brainswitching was to their success.

Most of Us Need the Instructor's Help

        The 4% of the student population who are immediately successful in traditional language classes have "high aptitude" for second language learning. Aptitude, in this context, suggests two components: First, they are recognized by the instructor as a "good language student" meaning they have the talent (unearned skill) to reproduce utterances in the target language with fidelity. The second component is that they "play" with the target language on their own time which suggests a self-initiated brainswitch from left to right such as creating a conversation with an imaginary friend.

        However, 96% of the student population will not enjoy immediate success in exercises such as, "Listen and repeat after me!" There will be a normal bell-shaped curve with 4% able to mimic the instructor with almost a perfect match and everyone else deviating from perfection across the normal curve in a wide scatter. Hence, the great bulk of students will "study" and "work" only within the confines of each class meeting. There is no incentive (such as instructor recognition) to continue the activity outside the boundary lines of the class sessions.

        Therefore, if we want most of the students to continue with a long-range commitment that keeps students going from level to level to fluency, then the instructor must skillfully and smoothly move the students back and forth from the right to the left brain. My Total Physical Response (known internationally as TPR) is one of the most powerful brainswitching techniques.

How to Do it:
Start with Comprehension, Comprehension, Comprehension

        Notice that in the traditional language classroom, students start with production followed by comprehension. Production is the star with comprehension the bit player who appears fleetingly on stage in the milliseconds after a question is asked. Comprehension has such a minor role, it receives no screen credits.

        TPR reverses the sequence with comprehension as the star of the drama, and production is the supporting player because it appears later on stage--much later, perhaps after 10 to 20 hours of comprehension exercises.

        Our premise is that, for almost all students, talking in the target language cannot be achieved directly by listening to the instructor and repeating strange utterances.

Where to find a Blueprint to Follow

        For a detailed road map showing the latest research on the right and left brain along with practical applications to motivation, learning, problem solving, work, play, counseling and more, I refer you to my book, Brainswitching. Then, to apply brainswitching to second language acquisition, these two books will guide you step by step for successful results: Learning Another Language Through Actions (newly expanded 4th edition) and Ramiro Garcia's Instructor's Totebook: How to Apply TPR for Best Results.


Asher, James J. Learning Another Language Through Actions (4th Edition), 1993. Published by: Sky Oaks Productions, Inc., P.O. Box 1102, Los Gatos, CA 95031.

Asher, James J. Brainswitching, 1988. Published by: Sky Oaks.

Asher, James J. The Super School of the 2st Century: We Can Have It Now! (in press) Published by: Sky Oaks.

Garcia, Ramiro. Instructor's Notebook How To Apply TPR For Best Results (2nd Edition), 1993. Published by Sky Oaks.

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