SEATTLE, May 14 — If you struggled with languages at school then a new US study may provide you with an excuse, finding that some adults learn a second language better than others thanks to the rhythms of activity in their brains.
The small-scale study, by researchers at the University of Washington, is the first to use resting-state brain rhythms to predict the future rate of language learning, showing that just a five-minute measurement of resting-state brain activity could predict how quickly adults would learn a second language.
For their study researchers recruited 19 participants aged 18 to 31 with no previous experience of learning French.
The participants had to sit with their eyes closed for five minutes while wearing an EEG (electroencephalogram) headset to measure naturally occurring patterns of brain activity.
Participants then received immersive, 30-minute French lessons twice a week for eight weeks using a fast-paced virtual reality computer program.
At the end of the program participants completed a proficiency test to see how far they had progressed with their language learning.
When comparing these test results to the EEG measurements of resting brain activity, the researchers found that brain activity predicted 60 per cent of an adult’s ability to learn a second language.
The patterns of brain activity related to language processes were also linked most strongly to the participants’ rate of learning, with the results also showing that although the fastest person learned twice as quickly as the slower learners, the slower learners learned just as well.
But even if you don’t have the naturally occurring brain patterns predisposing you to language learning, the study’s lead author Chantel Prat advises to not give up just yet.
“Our results show that 60 per cent of the variability in second language learning was related to this brain pattern— that leaves plenty of opportunity for important variables like motivation to influence learning.”
Prat also added that it is possible to change this resting-state brain activity using neurofeedback training — a type of brain training program that can improve cognitive abilities — which she is currently researching further in the hope of developing more ways to improve language learning.
The study can be found online in the journal Brain and Language.
You can watch a video demonstration of the language software.