Babies' ability to soak up language makes them the envy of adult learners everywhere. Still, some grown-ups can acquire new tongues with surprising ease. Now some studies suggest it is possible to predict a person's language-learning abilities from his or her brain structure or activity—results that may eventually be used to help even the most linguistically challenged succeed.
In one study, published in 2015 in the Journal of Neurolinguistics, a team of researchers looked at the structure of neuron fibers in white matter in 22 beginning Mandarin students. Those who had more spatially aligned fibers in their right hemisphere had higher test scores after four weeks of classes, the scientists found. Like a freeway express lane, highly aligned fibers are thought to speed the transfer of information within the brain. Although language is traditionally associated with the left hemisphere, the right, which seems to be involved in pitch perception, may play a role in distinguishing the tones of Mandarin, speculates study author Zhenghan Qi of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In another study, published in June 2016 in Brain and Language, EEG scans before an intensive online French course revealed patterns of brain-wave activity in a relaxed, resting state that correlated with completing the course quickly and easily.
In the past researchers have observed this kind of activity when people put together sentences, says Chantel Prat, the University of Washington psychologist who led the study. In this instance, it may be a reflection of the 16 subjects' ability to focus or follow instructions or another feature that aids in language learning, she notes. Prat is interested in studying whether neurofeedback—showing people their EEG images in real time to train them in certain types of brain activity—can prepare them to learn a language better. “The last thing I want someone to think is, ‘Oh, my brain is like this ... what's the point? I can't learn,’” Prat says.
What language aptitude really is and how it manifests in the brain are complex questions, touching on the nature of attention and even consciousness. “I think language is the most miraculous feat of the human brain,” Prat says. “When you try and learn a second language, you realize how challenging it is.