Can we predict which people will learn foreign languages ​​better?


A common complaint we probably have when observing this friend who can speak effortlessly in a dozen different languages ​​might be something like, “Why is he so good at learning languages? It’s not fair!” Well, now it looks like there may be a hidden advantage this friend has over us: how our brains are “wired” affects how we learn a new language.

A recent study has shown for the first time that people who have difficulty learning a new language may have their brains wired in a way that reduces their ability to learn the necessary language skills. In particular, this means that intrinsic differences in how different brain regions communicate with each other make it significantly easier for some adults to learn a second language than for others.

Scientists are now able to use brain scans to effectively determine the quality of a person’s language acquisition abilities. It turns out that this is directly related to the ability of the brain’s language centers to communicate when we are in a state of rest. The reason for this is that so much of our learning process happens when we rest – indeed, it’s no surprise that sleep is of crucial importance to both our learning and our health.

Now, scientists have found that language learning is significantly easier if there is a higher degree of communication between two brain regions, specifically when the left anterior operculum interacts more with the left superior temporal gyrus ( an integral part of the language network in our brain). This has strong implications for predicting the ease (or lack thereof) with which one can learn a new language.

The study described here involved a total of 15 English-speaking adults who were about to enroll in a French-learning course that spanned 12 weeks of intensive training. Before and after the course, the brains of these participants were scanned and their language skills were tested. Those who had improved connections between the aforementioned brain regions were shown to demonstrate a much greater degree of improvement in the administered speaking test, highlighting the important role brain wiring plays in language acquisition. .

Brain rhythms and ability to learn a foreign language

In addition to the inherent “hardwiring” of the brain, it was also recently shown in a separate study that an adult’s brain rhythms may be another good predictor of their ability to learn a new language – and this measure of activity cerebral during a state of rest takes only five minutes. In this study, the scientists show that resting-state brain rhythms could be analyzed for characteristics that account for 60% of the variability influencing an adult’s ability to acquire a second language. The participants in this study were 19 adult volunteers aged 18 to 31 with no prior experience in learning French. With their eyes closed, the volunteers sat for five minutes. During this time, they were fitted with an EEG (electroencephalogram) headset, which was used to provide measurements of brain activity patterns.

Throughout the duration of the study, which took place over a total of eight weeks, the volunteers visited the laboratory twice a week to take part in French lessons of 30 minutes each. These language training lessons were administered via a computer using an immersive virtual reality program funded by the United States Office of Naval Research. The program is called the Operational Language and Cultural Training System (OLCTS) and is designed to enable service members to acquire rudimentary skills in a new language with just 20 hours of training. Notably, the program is self-paced and provides a sequence of stories and scenes to facilitate learning. A voice recognition component is also integrated to allow easy pronunciation checking.

Additionally, the scientists included quizzes at various points in the course that required a minimum score before allowing participants to move on to the next lesson. This ensured that users were paying attention when going through the lessons and also served as an indicator of how fast each user was going through the designated program.

After the conclusion of this training regimen, the volunteers took a test that assessed their proficiency in the new language (test coverage was based on the number of lessons taken). Even though the fastest participant learned twice as fast as the slowest, the latter learned just as well in terms of language proficiency. From the EEG headsets, the recordings showed that specific brain activity patterns related to language-related processes had the strongest correlation with the volunteers’ ability to learn a new language, indicating that these patterns could likely confer some inherent advantages for people looking to learn a second language.

Are “brain advantages” the only determinants of language learning?

In light of the results described in this article, it is relevant to note that brain wiring does not unequivocally predetermine a person’s ability to learn a new language, since many other innate and environmental factors are involved, such as the motivation of the individual. In a similar line of thought, this does not mean that people without an “advantageous” brain pattern should not try to learn a second language, because such a pattern accounts for only 60% of the variability in language acquisition. This means that other factors play an important role in the learning process and must also be taken into account.

The plasticity of the brain means that different stimuli and learning experiences can shape its development. To that end, these studies provide key insights into how learning a new language can be influenced by individual differences. In this regard, it would logically follow that the long-term goal would be to eventually develop more targeted approaches for individuals to facilitate their language acquisition.

Additionally, resting brain activity can be altered using a type of training called neurofeedback training, for which work is currently underway. This program regime allows users to reinforce brain patterns related to improved cognition to improve their performance in language learning. Hopefully this can then be extended to improving general learning abilities in the future – an exciting concept with unlimited applications.


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Chai, X., Berken, J., Barbeau, E., Soles, J., Callahan, M., Chen, J. & Klein, D. (2016). Intrinsic functional connectivity in the adult brain and success in second language learning Journal of Neuroscience, 36 (3), 755-761 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2234-15.2016

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Image via wilhei/Pixabay.


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