Kids are better at learning foreign languages. Right? That’s what we are all told. However, a lot of adults, including myself, would love to learn a new language.
Personally, language learning is my hobby. I even recently created a golf blog in English, even though I am a native French speaker. I showed the newly created site to some of my friends, with a few articles on golf clubs and tips for playing golf better. They were very impressed because they can’t even fathom the idea of writing an email in a foreign language.
Are certain people genetically better at learning languages?
If you have mastered a foreign language, I’m sure people around you have told you that you are a “genius”, or that you must have some sort of language “gene”. Originally, I didn’t really subscribe to the theory that some “geniuses” had a substantial advantage in terms of learning a new language. However, as time passed, my ego got the best of me. I started identifying with this “language genius”. This was until I started learning Japanese.
Asian languages are hard to learn for westerners. I learned this lesson the hard way. My goal was to become fluent in just a year by studying for about 1 hour a day. After 1 year, my ego shattered, I started questioning the existence of the “language learning gene”. So, I started looking for answers.
My quest eventually led me to a study published in PNAS. This study is titled “Brain white matter structure and COMT gene are linked to second-language learning in adults”. When the study came out, rumors had it that this publication explained the existence of language learning “geniuses”. The researchers claim that certain genes are responsible for 46% of our ability to learn a language as an adult. They explain that a mysterious gene called “COMT” seems to play a huge role in changing the white matter that makes up brain tissue, which is crucial for language learning.
But is this really true? Let’s take a deeper look.
Testing 79 Chinese students
This study was written by multiple researchers, who wanted to know why some adults show faster progress when learning a new language.
So they set up an experiment. They selected 79 foreign students from China and put them through an intensive English-learning program for 3 weeks. Then, 35 other students acted as the “control group” and basically did nothing. According to Ping Mamiya (neurologist and main author): “all [students] have the same experience in the same class and they learn [the language] with the same instructions”.
During the experiment, the researchers were performing brain scans on all the students (including students from the control group). They were looking for structural and neuronal changes. And what they found is nothing short of surprising.
The language learning gene
After 3 weeks, the researchers scanned the brains of the participants. They found that the structure and the connectivity of certain areas of the brain were progressively strengthened. These changes went in the opposite direction once the program was over and the participant stopped learning.
The researchers were not satisfied with these observations alone, so they decided to look for further evidence in the DNA of the participants. They discovered a gene called “COMT”, and they found that it was responsible for the majority of the changes observed in the brain scans.
The “COMT” gene has 3 different versions: AA, AB, and BB. We all have the “COMT” gene, but we only have 1 variation of it. The researchers found that the students with the AA variant of this gene saw almost no changes in white matter during the experiment. In contrast, the students with the AB or the BB versions of the gene went through strong evolutions in their white matter.
After looking at the numbers, the scientists found that in 46.2% of the cases, language acquisition could be explained by the variations of the “COMT” gene in adults.
Some skepticism is required
By now, you may be thinking that you are doomed to remain a slow language learner for your whole life. If your genes determine your language learning progress by 46.2%, you can only do half of the work!
But as always with new studies, some skepticism is needed. In this case, some scientists like Frank Ramus from the prestigious CNRS (the French national research center) have expressed serious doubts regarding the methodology used in the “COMT” study. Specifically, he points out that a sample of 79 students is not sufficient to draw clear conclusions. Language learning depends on a panel of factors, and Frank Ramus thinks the data provided in the paper is unconvincing.
In fact, there has been so much skepticism regarding this article that Patricia Kuhl (one of the researchers) had to admit that this type of research was still in its infancy. Researchers are just starting to investigate the relationship between brain and language ability. There is still some work to be done around this study to make sure that there are no other factors involved.
Why it doesn’t matter
This morning, I was looking for a good podcast to listen to while making breakfast. I settled for an episode from NPR called “Why we don’t feel rich”. The host made an interesting argument that most rich people don’t feel rich. This is because humans have a tendency to compare themselves to the people one step above on the social ladder.
So if you have a trip planned to Tahiti, you may be thinking about the lucky people sitting in first class that you saw when boarding the plane. I’m willing to bet that the people in first class are probably thinking about the other folks flying on their own jets or on better airlines!
My point is, you are still going to Tahiti. You are still going to learn a language. That’s awesome in an of itself. How fast someone else learns has nothing to do with your own journey.
You can be the genius
There are certainly genetic factors that influence your ability to learn a second language as an adult. How big of a role do these factors play? Scientists are uncertain. The study I cited above is brand new and needs a lot more work to get validated.
Nevertheless, the people who are successful with foreign languages often have a little secret. Most of them know very well that they are no geniuses. But they know which methods work for them.
Back in school, I went through 5 years of classes and couldn’t hold a decent conversation at the end. I was convinced that I just didn’t have it. The Gods didn’t provide me with the language learning gift I always admired. A few years later, I decided to start learning Japanese. I was able to get to a conversational level within 2 years. This is far from being impressive, but the methods I used are still orders of magnitude more effective than the way I used to learn Spanish back in school.
Here are the main 3 methods I focused on.
Do you SRS?
SRS is short for “Spaced Repetition System”. There are many apps for learning languages that have an SRS at their core. These are essentially flashcard apps that feed you certain words at certain dates in an attempt to engrave the information in your long-term memory.
SRS apps are particularly useful for Japanese if you want to learn the Kanji. I would recommend using an SRS for vocabulary as well. These apps are undoubtedly effective. Many polyglots swear by them. In addition, there have been multiple studies showing the effectiveness of SRS apps on vocabulary retention. Scientists at Iowa State University say in one paper that “activities based on spaced repetition can lead to a nearly threefold improvement of vocabulary learning gains in EFL students without any changes to the rest of pedagogy in the classroom”.
Comprehensive input is key
If you have been in the language learning game for some time, you have probably stumbled upon something called “comprehensible input”. Language learners are focusing more and more on consuming content that is at their level or slightly more difficult.
I suspect it is the work of Dr. Stephen Krashen that popularized this concept. Japanese learners may have heard of the “AJATT” method, which basically relies almost entirely on comprehensible input, supplemented with some SRS work.
Do what you like
I think the main reason why a lot of aspiring learners fail is that they approach language acquisition as an intellectual challenge. They think they should take an academic approach, read textbooks and attend classes. I have nothing against textbooks and classes (I actually use both). But language learning is one of those things where you need to take your own preferences into account.
It’s very much like trying to lose weight. According to studies, almost every person who tries to lose a few pounds manages to do so, but 95% of these dieters regain the weight they lost (and then gain some more fat). The methods that people are using are effective, but they are not sustainable for the average Joe. Don’t look for the “best language learning method”. Look for something that you can incorporate into your daily routine in the long term.
It’s all about consistency
Clearly, there are learning methods that are more effective than others. However, don’t try to go for the most effective method if you don’t enjoy using it. Language learning is a long term endeavor, and you need to practice every day. You won’t be able to do that if you use methods that don’t fit your personal preferences.