The Proprioceptive Sense in Language Learning:

In order to teach adult students to speak a second language fluently, it is necessary to understand how the human mind produces speech before it is possible to design an effective language instruction program for them.

However, before looking at speech, drawing an analogy from machine control will be helpful because the analogy closely parallels neurological responses in spoken language.

  • Open-loop machine control:

Wikipedia describes an open-loop control system as follows:

An open-loop controller also called a non-feedback controller is a type of controller that computes its input into a system using only the current state. of the system. A characteristic of the open-loop controller is that it does not use feedback to determine if its input has achieved the desired goal. This means that the system does not observe the output of the processes that it is controlling. Consequently, a true open-loop system. cannot correct any errors that it could make.

For example, a sprinkler system, programmed to turn on at set times could be an example of an open-loop system if it does not measure soil moisture as a form of feedback. Even if rain is pouring down on the lawn, the sprinkler system would activate on schedule, wasting water.


Figure 1 shows an open-loop control system. The control could be a simple switch, or it could be a combination of a switch and a timer. Yet, all it can do is turn the machine on. It cannot respond to anything the machine is doing.

  • Closed-loop machine control:

Wikipedia then describes closed-loop control as follows:

To avoid the problems of the open loop controller, control theory introduces feedback. A closed-loop controller uses feedback to control states or outputs of a dynamic system. Its name comes from the information path in the system: process inputs (e.g. voltage applied to a motor) have an effect on the process outputs

(e.g. velocity. . . of the motor), which is measured by sensors and processed by the controller; the result (the control signal) is used as input to the process, closing the loop.

Wikipedia’s definition of a closed-loop system subsequently becomes too technical to use here. However, as Wikipedia suggests above, a sprinkler incorporating a soil moisture sensor would be a simple closed-loop system. The sprinkler system would have both a timer and a control valve. Either could operate independently, and either could shut the water off, but both would need to be open in order for the sprinkler to operate. The arrangement is shown in Figure 2.


If the soil is already moist, the sprinkler will remain off whether or not the timer is open. When the moisture probe senses dry soil, the valve is opened. However, after the sprinkler is on if the soil becomes moist enough, the valve will close even if the timer is still open. Thus, the sprinkler uses feedback from its own operation to control itself.


Figure 3 shows a simple closed-loop machine control.

Notice that Figure 3 also shows a calibration function. Irrespective of whether it is a soil moisture sensor on a sprinkler — or a counter on a machine — there must be some way of setting the control so that it will respond in a predetermined way. In a machine application, the calibration function could be a counter that is set so that the machine will shut down after producing a certain number of finished parts.

  • Human speech is a closed-loop system:

Human speech is a complex learned skill and is dependent on number of memory and neurological functions. Speech is a closed-loop system because sensors within the system itself give feedback to the control portion of the system. The control then corrects and coordinates ongoing speech. In this case, the mind is in control of the closed-loop system, the mouth produces the desired product (speech), and auditory feedback from the ears and proprioceptive feedback from the mouth allow the mind to coordinate the speech process in real time.

The inter-relationship of these functions is shown in the table below. The meaning of specialized words is given below the table.

The Organ or SensePrimary Function(s)Comments
The mind provides;1. Vocabulary memory

2. Partial syntax control

3. Feedback coordination

4. Calibration by the speaker to give meaning to the sounds

The mind is the storage bank for vocabulary. Memory is also involved in structuring syntax. In addition, the mind uses both auditory and proprioceptive feedback to monitor and calibrate speech in real time.
The mouth and related organs provide;1. Sound production

2. Breath regulation

3. Proprioceptive feedback to the mind in real time which regulates pronunciation and provides partial syntax control

The proprioceptive sense is involved in both pronunciation and syntax feedback. It is essential for speech control.
The hearing provides;1. Auditory feedback to the mind in real timeAuditory and proprioceptive feedback are combined in the mind for essential speech control.

Table 1: The three components of human speech and their primary functions.

Proprioceptive. The human speech would be impossible without the proprioceptive sense. (Proprioceptive refers to the sense within the organism itself that detects or controls the movement and location of the muscles, tendons, and joints which are used to create speech.) Our mouth, vocal cords, diaphragm, and lungs incorporate thousands of nerve sensors that the brain uses to control their movement and determine their position. Imagine the complexity of pronouncing even a single word with the need to coordinate the tongue, breath control, and jaw muscles. Now multiply this complexity as sentences are constructed in rapid succession during normal speech.

Real time. Unlike an open-loop control system, a closed-loop control system monitors feedback and corrects the process as the machine is running. The reciprocal path between the control, the feedback sensors, and the process itself is instantaneous. That is, information is not stored for later use. Rather, it is used instantaneously as the sensors detect it. In this chapter, the term simultaneous is used to indicate real-time feedback during language instruction.

Calibration. In human speech, the mind must constantly monitor the feedback information from both the speaker’s own hearing and the proprioceptive senses so that the mind can control muscles to create the desired sounds. Thus, the speaker is constantly calibrating the feedback to control speech. To change a tense, the speaker may change “run” to “ran,” or change the person from “he” to “she,” and so on. These word changes are achieved by precise control of the muscles used to produce speech.


Thus, in Figure 4, human speech is represented as the interplay between the mind, the mouth, and its related organs (represented in the figure by the tongue), two feedbacks systems, and conscious calibration as the speaker constructs each sentence. In addition, calibration continuously takes place within the control center — the mind.

However, it acts on feedback from hearing and the proprioceptive senses, so calibration is shown as acting on the source of the feedback.

When children learn their mother tongue (First Acquired Language or L1), their natural ability to hear and mimic adult speech builds complex proprioceptive response patterns. A French-speaking child effortlessly learns to make nasal sounds. An English speaking child learns to put his tongue between his teeth and make the “TH” sound. A Chinese-speaking child learns to mimic the important tones which change the meaning of words. Each of these unique sounds requires learned muscle control within the mouth.

No apology is needed for the intricacy of this explanation. The neurological feedback and resulting control of the muscles involved in speech is extremely complex. The mind plays a far more important role than simply remembering vocabulary and organizing words into meaningful sentences.

When a new language is being learned, all of its unique sounds and syntaxes must be studied. This is not merely a memory function. Each of these new sounds and syntax patterns requires retraining of the entire mind, proprioceptive feedback, and the auditory feedback chain involved in speech.

The Even syntax is dependent on the proprioceptive sense. The statement, “This is a book,” feels different to the nerve receptors in the mouth than the question, “Is this a book?” We can certainly understand that memory is involved in using correct grammar. Just as important, however, is the observation that proprioceptive feedback demands that a question must evoke a different sequence of feedback than does a statement. This is why partial syntax control has been identified in Table 1 as being a shared function of both the mind (memory) and the mouth (as a proprioceptive sense).

If you doubt that the proprioceptive sense is an important part of speech, try this experiment: Read a sentence or two of this article entirely in your mind without moving your lips. You may even speed read it. Now read the same sentences silently by moving your lips but making no sound. Your mind responds to the first as simple information that is primarily a memory function. However, your mind will respond to the latter as speech because of the proprioceptive feedback from your mouth. The latter is not just cognitive — your mind will respond to it as speech that transcends mere mental activity. Did you also notice a difference in your mental intensity between the two readings? The first would be the mental activity required of a student doing a written grammar-based assignment. The second would be the mental activity required of a student studying a language using spoken exercises. The effectiveness of language learning is in direct proportion to the student’s mental involvement.

  • The best way to teach a second language:

Two skill areas must be emphasized while teaching an adult a new language. The first is memory (which is Involved in both vocabulary and syntax) and the second is the proprioceptive responses (which are involved in both pronunciation and syntax).

Simple vocabulary-related memory skills may probably be learned with equal effectiveness by using either verbal or visual training methods. That is, they may be learned either by a spoken drill or a written exercise.

However, it is impossible to train the important proprioceptive sense without involving students’ hearing and voices at full speaking volume. Thus, in my opinion, it is a waste of the students’ time to introduce written assignments for the purpose of teaching a spoken language.

Surprisingly, it will take far less time for students to learn both fluent speech and excellent grammar by perfecting only spoken language first; than it will to incorporate written grammar instruction into the lessons before a moderate level of fluency is attained. This does not mean, however, that grammar is not a necessary part of spoken language instruction. It is impossible to speak a language without using its grammar correctly. This statement simply means that the best way to learn a target language’s grammar is through spoken language exercises. See Grammar and Writing in Spoken Language Study.

Inasmuch as spoken language involves multiple cognitive, muscle, and neurological components working cooperatively in real time, it is mandatory that effective spoken language methods train students to use all of these components of speech simultaneously. This is shown in Figure 5.


It is the important area of the proprioceptive sense that has been most overlooked in current grammar-based teaching methodology. When any student over the age of 12 or so attempts to learn a new language, his or her proprioceptive response patterns must be consciously retrained in order to reproduce all of the new sounds and syntaxes of that language.

Further, to properly train the proprioceptive sense of the mouth, the combined feedback from the mouth and hearing must be simultaneously processed in the mind. Simply said, the student must speak out loud for optimum language learning.

Without the simultaneous involvement of all components of speech, it is impossible to effectively retrain the students’ proprioceptive senses to accommodate a new language. Yet, this is exactly what grammar-based language instruction has traditionally done by introducing grammar, listening, writing, and reading as segregated activities. It is not surprising that it takes students in a grammar-based program a long time to learn to speak their target language fluently.


Grammar-based instruction has hindered language learning by segregating individual areas of study. This segregation is represented in Figure 6. Grammar-based language training has not only isolated proprioceptive training areas so that it prevents simultaneous skill development, but it has replaced it instead with visual memory training through the use of written assignments. Grammar-based language instruction teaches the target language as though spoken language was an open-loop system. In so doing, gaining language fluency requires far more study time, pronunciation is often faulty, and grammar becomes more difficult to learn.


Grammar-based language study traditionally teaches a spoken language as though speech is primarily a function of memory. Consequently, grammar-based instruction has emphasized non-verbal (written) studies of grammar, writing, reading, and listening. All of these activities may increase recall memory for written examinations, but they have little benefit in teaching a student to speak a new language.

The only way an adult can effectively learn a new spoken language is by using spoken language as the method of instruction. All lessons should be verbal, with the student speaking at full voice volume for the entire study period.


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