When learning a second language, adult human brains undergo tissue reorganisation. Previous research has shown that the properties of brain structure change when a new language is learned, and that the adult human brain is capable of tissue reorganisation in response to intense use of a new language.
Researchers at the University of Washington recently investigated if this was due to genetic factors. The University scanned the brains of newly-arrived Chinese students, measuring the diffusion properties of their white matter fibres, and correlated that to the number of days each student had been learning English in their immersion programme.
There was a control group of Chinese students who were not enrolled on the language programme, and these were matched with the research subjects by previous exposure to English, the age they were first exposed to English, their parents’ and siblings’ English proficiency levels, and the amount of time they had lived outside of China.
The researchers found that measurable changes in the brain took place when the students were learning English, and that their progress could be predicted by looking at their genes. Statistical modelling revealed that the subjects’ grades in the language immersion program were best predicted by fractional anisotropy and COMT genotype (if you want to know more, the detail of the research can be found here: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/06/07/1606602113.full)
This is really fascinating stuff – we understand more all the time about how languages are learned. It seems that there are some genes that confer an advantage in learning languages as an adult. Having said that, all the students in the immersion programme will have improved their English skills, so whether or not we have the particular gene studied here is no excuse not to learn a language. As we prove every day at la Academia, adults of all brain types can learn a language! To join them, give us a call 0161 491 1444 or firstname.lastname@example.org.