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June 2016

How Much Do Our Genes Play in Learning a New Language?

New study ties language learning with genes and brain white matter

A new study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, part of the University of Washington's Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS), yielded results that suggest the ability a person has in learning a foreign language correlates with changes in the white matter of the brain, the part responsible for communications. Testing for genetic differences between their subjects, researchers also found that those with two forms of the gene COMT had greater changes in the brain's network of communications, and thus a heightened ability to learn languages.

The study also suggests that those who struggle with learning new languages may be held back by their genes and brain structure, that up to 46 percent of the variance in the final scores of the language students in their study had to do with the COMT genotype and activity in the white matter portion of the students' brains. The remaining 54 percent of what accounted for the variance is, however, still unknown.

What the findings essentially suggest is that certain people are genetically gifted when it comes to learning a new language. While this may seem demoralising at first, all language learners know that hard work and perseverance can overcome any shortcomings brought about by genes. The hill may be tougher to climb, but the summit isn’t unreachable. Similarly, understanding the nature of our genes and our physical brains and how they relate to language learning can help researchers develop better learning techniques.

Additionally, previous studies, like the MRI study on the brain at Lund University in Sweden, have suggested that language learning increases the size of the brain. So while our genes and white matter have a lot to do with our success at learning new languages, the act of learning a new language itself has a positive effect on our brains.

Other language experts, like polyglot Benny Lewis, even say that adults are better language learners than children, and that we often use studies suggesting the opposite to limit our language learning ambitions. As adults, many of our language learning barriers are created by our egos and resistance to change. Unlike children who learn from scratch, our ample supplies of context can help us understand comparisons between languages easier, however they can also hold us back, such as when we choose not to adopt proper accents. Language learning requires an open mind, and being too set into the world can be a hinderance. Thankfully, we can be brought back down to earth with a little mindfulness and a lot of effort.

The conclusion is simple: our genes and brain activity can determine how well we learn a new language, but the act of learning a new language helps stimulate the brain. While children can learn quickly because their minds are more plastic, adults can still learn just as effectively, if not better, if we put much work into it.

Do you find it more difficult learning a new language as an adult? Do you consider yourself naturally better or worse at learning languages? Let us know on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” TELC English for more language learning articles!

Picture: Fotolia (c) pico