Can We Predict Which People Will Be Better At Learning Foreign Languages?

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One common gripe we probably have when we observe that friend who can speak effortlessly in a dozen different tongues may be something along the lines of: “Why is he or she so good at learning languages – it’s not fair!” Well, now it appears that perhaps there is indeed some hidden advantage this friend has over ourselves: How our brain is “wired” affects how we pick up a new language.

A recent study has shown for the first time that people who have difficulty in learning a new language could have brains that are wired in a way that reduces their ability to acquire the necessary linguistic skills. In particular, this means that the intrinsic differences in how different brain regions communicate with each other makes it significantly easier for some adults to learn a second language as compared to others.

Scientists now are able to use brain scans to effectively determine how good a person’s language acquisition abilities are. It turns out that this is directly linked to the ability of the communication of the brain’s language centres when we are in a state of rest. The reason for this is that a large part of our learning processes actually occurs when we are resting – indeed, it is not surprising that sleep is of critical importance to both our learning and health.

Now, scientists have discovered that the learning of language is considerably easier if there is a higher degree of communication between two regions of the brain, more specifically when the left anterior operculum interacts more with the left superior temporal gyrus (an integral part of the language network in our brains). This has strong implications for predicting the ease (or lack thereof) at which one can learn a new language.

The study described herein involved a total of 15 English-speaking adults who were about to enlist in a course to learn French that spanned 12 weeks of intensive training. Prior to and after the course, the brains of these participants were scanned and their language abilities were tested. It was shown that those who had improved connections between the aforementioned brain regions demonstrated a much bigger degree of improvement in the administered speaking test, highlighting the important role brain wiring plays in language acquisition.

Brain rhythm patterns and the ability to learn a foreign language

In addition to the inherent “wiring” of the brain, it has also been shown recently in a separate study that the brain rhythm patterns of an adult can be another good predictor of how well he or she can learn a new language – and this measurement of brain activity during a resting state only takes a mere five minutes. In this study, scientists show that the brain’s resting state rhythms could be analyzed for characteristics that account for 60% of the variability influencing an adult’s ability to acquire a second language. The participants in this study were 19 adult volunteers with ages ranging from 18 to 31 years without any prior experience with learning French. With their eyes closed, the volunteers sat for five minutes. During this time period, they were equipped with an EEG (electroencephalogram) headset, which served to provide measurements of brain activity patterns.

For the length of the study, which took place over a total of eight weeks, the volunteers went to the lab two times a week to take part in French lessons with each lasting 30 minutes. These language-training lessons were administered via a computer utilizing an immersive virtual reality program funded by the United States Office of Naval Research. The program is termed the Operational Language and Cultural Training System (OLCTS), and seeks to enable members of the military to gain rudimentary proficiency in a new language with only 20 training hours. Notably, the program is self-paced and provides a sequence of stories and scenes to facilitate learning. A component to recognize voices is also incorporated to allow for easy verification of pronunciation.

Additionally, the scientists included quizzes at various points in the course that required a minimum score before allowing participants to move on to the subsequent lesson. This ensured that the users were attentive when going through the lessons and also doubled as an indicator of the speed at which each user went through the designated syllabus.

After the conclusion of this training regimen, the volunteers took a test that assessed their proficiency in the new language (the coverage of the test was based on the number of lessons completed). Even though the fastest participant learned twice as quickly as the slower ones, the latter learned just as well in terms of their language proficiency. From the EEG headsets, the recordings showed that specific brain activity patterns that were linked to language-related processes had the highest correlation to the volunteers’ ability to pick up a new language, indicating that these patterns could plausibly confer some inherent benefits for people looking to learn a second language.

Are “brain advantages” the only determinants of language learning?

In the light of the findings described in this article, it is pertinent to note that the brain’s wiring does not unequivocally predetermine a person’s ability to learn a new language, given that there are many other innate as well as environmental factors involved, such as the motivation of the individual. In a similar train of thought, this does not mean that people without the “advantageous” brain pattern should not try learning a second language as such a pattern only accounts for 60% of the variability in language acquisition. This means that other factors play important roles in the learning process and should be taken into account as well.

The brain’s plasticity means that different learning stimuli and experiences can shape how it develops. To this end, these studies provide key insights into how the learning of a new language can be influenced in individual-specific differences. In this regard, it would logically follow that the long-term goal would be to eventually develop more targeted approaches for individuals to facilitate their language acquisition.

Moreover, brain activity in the resting state can be modified using a type of training dubbed neurofeedback training, for which work is ongoing currently. This program regimen allows users to strengthen brain patterns related to enhanced cognition in order to improve their performance in language learning. Hopefully, this can subsequently be extended to improving learning abilities in general in the future – an exciting concept with boundless applications.


Berken, J., Gracco, V., Chen, J., Watkins, K., Baum, S., Callahan, M., & Klein, D. (2015). Neural activation in speech production and reading aloud in native and non-native languages NeuroImage, 112, 208-217 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.03.016

Chai, X., Berken, J., Barbeau, E., Soles, J., Callahan, M., Chen, J., & Klein, D. (2016). Intrinsic Functional Connectivity in the Adult Brain and Success in Second-Language Learning Journal of Neuroscience, 36 (3), 755-761 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2234-15.2016

Gruzelier, J. (2014). EEG-neurofeedback for optimising performance. I: A review of cognitive and affective outcome in healthy participants Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 44, 124-141 DOI: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.09.015

Prat, C., Yamasaki, B., Kluender, R., & Stocco, A. (2016). Resting-state qEEG predicts rate of second language learning in adults Brain and Language, 157-158, 44-50 DOI: 10.1016/j.bandl.2016.04.007

Image via wilhei / Pixabay.

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