Could a five-minute test predict how quickly adults can learn a second language?

New research suggests some people are wired to learn languages.
New research suggests some people are wired to learn languages.
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Why is it that for some adults learning a second language is a breeze, while for others it feels like an insurmountable task?

Research from the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington suggests part of the reason might lie in the rhythms of adults’ brains. In a new study published in Brain and Language, Dr. Chantel Prat, associate professor of psychology, found that a five-minute scan that measured participants’ resting-state brain activity predicted how quickly adults subsequently picked up a second language.

Prat recorded the participants’ resting-state brain activity using an EEG (electroencephalogram) headset and then had them take French lessons for two months.

Two factors became apparent. First, the fastest learner progressed more than twice as quickly while learning as effectively as the slower learners. Second, the EEG recordings showed that patterns of brain activity related to language processes correlated the most strongly with the rate at which participants learned the language.

“A characteristic of a person’s brain at rest predicted 60% of the variability in their ability to learn a second language in adulthood,” Prat said.

More research is needed, as it was a relatively small study over a short time period. Prat’s research involved 19 adults aged 18-31, just 16 of whom completed the training of 30-minute French lessons twice a week. Prat says it’s also possible that the neural oscillations are predictive of learning more broadly, rather than being specific to language learning.

There are other variables to take into consideration when acquiring a second language. “Motivation is one of (if not the) strongest predictions of success at second language learning,” Prat explains. “It is a very hard skill—probably the hardest thing the human brain does—and so being motivated to learn is critical.”