Brain Pattern Predicts How Well an Adult Learns a New Language

Photo: Flickr, Corey Templeton

Learning a new language is one thing that most babies can do better than adults, which makes language learning an excellent example of changes in neural plasticity across the lifespan.

Despite this, some adults are better able to learn second languages than others, and researchers at the University of Washington have found that their secret may involve the rhythms of their brain.

A new study led by Chantel Prat, an I-LABS faculty researcher, demonstrates that a five-minute measurement of resting-state brain activity predicted how quickly adults learned a second language.

"By studying individual differences in the brain, we're figuring out key constraints on learning and information processing, in hopes of developing ways to improve language learning, and eventually learning more generally," Prat said.

"Maybe someday we'll be able to be as good at learning languages as we were when we were in diapers!" she added.

The study, published in the June-July issue of the journal Brain and Language, is the first to use patterns of resting-state brain rhythms to predict subsequent language learning rate.

The researchers used a commercially available EEG (electroencephalogram) headset to measure brain patterns before the adult volunteers in the experiment completed eight weeks of French lessons, administered through a computer program.

Watch a video demonstrating the language training program:

At the end of the language lessons, the research team found that the brain activity recordings associated with language processes were linked the most strongly to the participants' rate of learning.

Prat and Andrea Stocco, co-author and an I-LABS faculty researcher, co-direct the Cognition and Cortical Dynamics Laboratory which is part of both I-LABS and the UW Department of Psychology.

Previously, the researchers with collaborators in computer science have discovered ways to link two human brains so that they can directly exchange information.

The new study with language learning in adults relates to the brain-to-brain projects because they both aim to use neuroscience and technology to help people learn more efficiently.

Learn more in a university news release »
Read the research paper »

Selected Media Coverage
Daily Mail (UK)