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In today's hyper-connected world, being proficient in multiple languages is fast becoming more of a requirement than an asset — most especially if English isn't your native language. Despite the high value placed on multilingualism, many people. schoolchildren and adults alike, struggle to acquire new tongues. Why is that? Is learning a new language really that hard? If so, is it neurologically harder for some than for others? If not, what are we doing wrong?
Research has recently offered us some interesting tidbits that give some insights into the reasons some people fail at learning new languages. Besides gleaning wisdom from scientific studies, however, there's also a lot to learn from fluent multilinguals.
Brain Waves Predict Your Ability To Learn A New Language?
Researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle invited 19 participants aged between 18 and 31 without previous experience with this language to try and learn some French with the help of an advanced immersive virtual reality computer system. Their language-learning sessions took place twice a week for half an hour at a time.
However, prior to beginning on their new quests, the participants were asked to simply sit with their eyes closed for a full five minutes, while wearing a electroencephalogram (EEG) set that measured their brain activity. The EEG recorded the learners' alpha, beta, delta, gamma, and theta brain waves and researchers tried to figure out whether the data gathered could in any way predict how far their subjects would advance during the program. The participants were also assessed on their progress throughout the eight-week French program, as well as upon completion of the study period.
Interestingly, the research team discovered that, though participants completed their lessons at widely varying speeds, this had no impact on their success. What did impact their ability to progress within the program, the study found, was their brain waves — higher levels of beta and gamma brain waves and lower levels of theta and delta waves were a winning combination.
Chantel Prat, associate professor of psychology and the lead author of the study, which was published in Brain and Language, said: "We've found that a characteristic of a person's brain at rest predicted 60 percent of the variability in their ability to learn a second language in adulthood."
The authors go on to note that brain-wave tests shouldn't be used to predict who should and shouldn't try to learn a second language in adulthood, but the data may predict just how much time and effort you need to put in to become a proficient conversationalist in a new tongue. Though their data is sure fascinating, it essentially confirms something many of us have believed in strongly — people have natural strengths and weaknesses, and it's possible to be particularly talented at learning languages, just as it is possible to naturally be good at math or sport.