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Learn languages quickly? Your brain might work differently than the rest of us

Published: 01st July, 2016 at 00:00
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For some people, learning a new language is notoriously difficult. For others, it comes naturally. Why is that?

Learning a new language is good for your brain, but it’s not always easy. Try as we might, not all of us are capable of speaking 59 languages.


Now, scientists from the University of Washington and the Office of Naval Research have found a connection between the way people’s brains function while at rest and how quickly they are able to pick up new languages.

Beta testing

Using virtual reality software developed by the military, the study included 19 adults who were learning French for the first time. The programme quizzed the participants throughout the eight-week curriculum in order to track how quickly they progressed between language lessons. They then had their brain activity measured by an EEG headset while they closed their eyes and relaxed for five minutes, once before the programme and once after.

"The brain waves we recorded reflect synchronized firing of large networks of neurons," says Dr Chantel Prat, lead author of the study and associate professor and faculty researcher at the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences. “The larger the networks were in ‘beta’ frequencies” – brain patterns associated with language and memory – “the faster our participants learned French.”

Brain training

That’s great news for those who have high ‘beta’ frequencies, but what about those of us who don’t? Fear not – brain activity only seems to predict the how fast participants could learn French and, as Prat points out, "there's more that goes into learning a new language than speed… You also have to factor in motivation, study habits and practice methods."

What’s more, there could be ways to actually change brain activity. The next phase of the study will look for ways to improve resting-state brain activity using games and puzzles. So don’t give up on those French lessons just yet, and why not fill out a few crossword puzzleswhile you’re at it.


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