New research shows that the way a person’s brain functions while at rest can help predict how quickly they can learn a new language.
New findings by scientists at the University of Washington demonstrate that a five-minute measurement of resting-state brain activity predicted how quickly adults picked up a second language.
The study, sponsored by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), is the first to use patterns of resting-state brain waves to determine how fast someone can learn a new language.
“This is vital brain function research that could enable the military to develop a more effective selection process of those who can learn languages quickly,” said Dr. Ray Perez, a program officer in ONR’s Warfighter Performance Department, who oversees the research. “This is especially critical to the intelligence community, which needs linguists fluent in a variety of languages, and must find such individuals rapidly.”
Study author Dr. Chantel Prat, an associate professor and faculty researcher at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, noted that the way someone’s brain functions while at rest predicts 60 percent of their capacity for learning a second language.
For the experiments, 19 adults between the ages of 18 and 31 with no previous experience learning French visited Prat’s lab twice weekly over eight weeks for 30-minute French lessons. The lessons were delivered through an immersive, virtual-reality computer program called Operational Language and Cultural Training System (OLCTS).
OLCTS is designed to make military personnel proficient in a foreign language after 20 hours of training. The self-paced program guides users through a series of scenes and stories. A voice-recognition component enables users to check their pronunciation.
To ensure participants were progressing well, the researchers used periodic quizzes that required a minimum score before proceeding to the next lesson. The quizzes also served as measures for how quickly participants moved through the curriculum.
For five minutes before and after the eight-week program, Prat had participants sit still, close their eyes, breathe deeply, and wear an electroencephalogram (EEG) headset that measured resting-state brain activity from the cerebral cortex, an area of the brain crucial to memory, attention and perception.
“The brain waves we recorded reflect synchronized firing of large networks of neurons,” said Prat. “We found that the larger the networks were in ‘beta’ frequencies [brain frequencies associated with language and memory], the faster our participants learned French.”
To confirm this, at the end of the eight-week language program, participants completed a proficiency test covering the lessons they had finished. Those with the larger “beta” networks learned French twice as quickly, the study found.
Prat was quick to note that language learning rates were the only things predicted by the recorded brain activity. Participants with smaller “beta” networks still learned the material equally well, he noted.
“There’s more that goes into learning a new language than speed,” said Prat. “You also have to factor in motivation, study habits and practice methods.”
The next stage of Prat’s research will focus on ways to improve and accelerate resting-state brain activity through neurofeedback training, sort of like a workout regimen that bulks up grey matter with brain games and mental cognition exercises like puzzles. Prat will have participants perform a range of neurofeedback techniques before completing the language program, and evaluate the results.
“By studying individual differences in the brain, we’re figuring out key constraints on learning and information processing, to develop ways to improve language mastery,” said Prat.
“This not only could benefit our nation’s military, but also our industry and educational system. In our increasingly connected global society, it pays to be able to speak multiple languages.”
Source: Office of Naval Research
Photo: Jeanne Gallee, an undergraduate research assistant at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, wears an EEG headset measuring her resting-state brain activity. Dr. Chantel Prat, whose research is sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, is studying how resting-state brain activity predicts language learning. (Photo provided by Justin A. Abernethy, University of Washington).