The activity of your brain at rest can predict your success at learning a second language.
Learning your native language as a child is tricky enough, but learning a second is a labor of love.
Once we have left the golden years of youth, learning new linguistic skills can be a hard-won battle.
Researchers at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the normal resting activity of students’ brains before embarking on a French language course.
The team, led by Xiaoqian Chai and Denise Klein, measured whether differences in connectivity predicted the success of the language students.
The results, published in The Journal of Neuroscience this week, are a tantalizing peek into why some people seem to learn second languages with more ease than others.
Even at times when you are consciously thinking of nothing at all, the brain still presents measurable activity. It never truly sleeps. Distant areas of the brain send messages back and forth on a constant basis.
These changes in activity across the brain leave signature signals that can be picked up by fMRI. Sections of the brain that are spatially distant from each other continuously interact. This is called functional resting-state connectivity.
Predicting the acquisition of language learning
Chai and Klein took fMRI scans of 15 adult English speakers before beginning an intensive 12-week French language course. The researchers tested the students’ verbal fluency and reading speed before and after the course.
Verbal fluency was measured by asking the students to speak in French for 2 minutes and counting the number of unique words spoken. Reading speed was measured by counting the number of words spoken per minute from a given text.
The team specifically investigated connections between the rest of the brain and two areas implicated in certain aspects of language; the anterior insula/frontal operculum (AI/FO), which is known to play a part in verbal fluency, and the visual word form area (VWFA), an area important for reading.
The neuroscience of language
Speech is a complex beast that requires a multitude of skills. Humans are so adept at the task that they rarely pause to consider just how wonderful our mastery of language truly is. An ability to decipher squiggles and symbols into words, and then those words into sentences and the sentences into meaning and intent is only a snippet of the job.
From meanings and intent, we form words and opinions of our own; these words and opinions can then be converted into complex sounds. Speech involves the virtually miraculous control of more than 100 individual muscles working in perfect sync to articulate meanings into sentences. The sentences formed will conform to the specific syntax of our mother tongue in a format that will be understood in the particular context we find ourselves.
The understanding and production of language is mind-blowing in the truest sense of the term.
The AI/FO and VWFA are just two areas of the brain that appear to play significant roles in the generation and understanding of speech. As such, they made useful targets for the experiments that followed.
Brain scan clues to learning ability
The results of the study did indeed show that participants with stronger connections between the AI/FO and the left superior temporal gyrus (an area involved in auditory processing and language comprehension) performed best in the speaking exam.
Additionally, those who had stronger connections between the VWFA and another section of the left superior temporal gyrus showed greater improvements in the test that rated their reading ability.
The study found that preexisting differences in resting-state connectivity predict how well a student will learn a second language.
These fascinating results help explain why some people seem to be naturally predisposed to learning languages. The authors note that people embarking on learning a new language should not feel disheartened, the brain is a wonderfully adaptable organ.
This particular study was carried out across a 12-week intensive course. A fascinating next phase of this study might be to chart how the connectivity of the brain ebbs and flows over a much longer course.
The brain’s plasticity knows no bounds; anyone who decides to throw their full attention at learning a task will undoubtedly have some measure of success, regardless of their baseline connectivity.
Medical News Today recently covered research showing that gestures and pictures can boost foreign language learning.