Tag Archives: Foreign language

Gene variant linked to language learning

8 Jul

Unfortunately this paper is behind a paywall, so it is hard to evaluate it. The claim is that a variant of the FOXP2 gene is associated with superior ability to learn a second language. Here is the abstract:

“A mutation of the forkhead box protein P2 (FOXP2) gene is associated with severe deficits in human speech and language acquisition. In rodents, the humanized form of FOXP2 promotes faster switching from declarative to procedural learning strategies when the two learning systems compete. Here, we examined a polymorphism of FOXP2 (rs6980093) in humans (214 adults; 111 females) for associations with non-native speech category learning success. Neurocomputational modeling results showed that individuals with the GG genotype shifted faster to procedural learning strategies, which are optimal for the task. These findings support an adaptive role for the FOXP2 gene in modulating the function of neural learning systems that have a direct bearing on human speech category learning.”


Confessions of a teenage polyglot

24 Apr

Here is an interview with Timothy Doner who taught himself 20 languages:

“During the past few years, I’ve been referred to in the media as “The World’s Youngest Hyperpolyglot” — a word that sounds like a rare illness. In a way it is: it describes someone who speaks a particularly large number of foreign languages, someone whose all-consuming passion for words and systems can lead them to spend many long hours alone with a grammar book.”

Definitely worth reading.

And don’t miss his TED talk:



What is the “best” second language?

21 Dec

I am a big advocate of language learning and I think you should whatever language interests you. The  languages I study, Japanese, Esperanto, Sanskrit, and Toki Pona, were all chosen because they interest me. However, you might want to know which languages allow you to communicate with the most people.

This is more than a question of which language has the most native speakers (Mandarin) it also matters how many people speak it as a second language and how often that language is translated. A fascinating piece in Science explores these questions;

“Speak or write in English, and the world will hear you. Speak or write in Tamil or Portuguese, and you may have a harder time getting your message out. Now, a new method for mapping how information flows around the globe identifies the best languages to spread your ideas far and wide. One hint: If you’re considering a second language, try Spanish instead of Chinese.”

“In contrast, some languages with large populations of speakers, such as Mandarin, Hindi, and Arabic, are relatively isolated in these networks. This means that fewer communications in those languages reach speakers of other languages. Meanwhile, a language like Dutch—spoken by 27 million people—can be a disproportionately large conduit, compared with a language like Arabic, which has a whopping 530 million native and second-language speakers. This is because the Dutch are very multilingual and very online.”

Learn a language at any age

16 Sep

A great piece in the Guardian, “Am I too old to learn a new language?” The answer is no.


‘Despite the difficulties, Black regards learning foreign languages as fun, and treats the endeavour like a puzzle that has to be solved. “I’m doing it partly to keep my brain active,” he says. “When you have some success and can express yourself, it feels like you’re using different parts of your brain that you weren’t using before.”

Indeed, research shows that bilingual children use the same brain regions for both languages if they are learned during childhood, whereas learning a second language later on in life recruits different regions from those involved in using one’s mother tongue. And learning a foreign language, much like learning to play a musical instrument, does indeed appear to be a good way of exercising one’s brain, and keeping it healthy, throughout life.’

Here is an interesting TED talk on language learning and teaching:

Singing may facilitate foreign language learning

5 Jan

A paper published in the July issue of Memory and Cognition suggests that singing may facilitate foreign language learning. Here is the abstract:

“This study presents the first experimental evidence that singing can facilitate short-term paired-associate phrase learning in an unfamiliar language (Hungarian). Sixty adult participants were randomly assigned to one of three “listen-and-repeat” learning conditions: speaking, rhythmic speaking, or singing. Participants in the singing condition showed superior overall performance on a collection of Hungarian language tests after a 15-min learning period, as compared with participants in the speaking and rhythmic speaking conditions. This superior performance was statistically significant (p < .05) for the two tests that required participants to recall and produce spoken Hungarian phrases. The differences in performance were not explained by potentially influencing factors such as age, gender, mood, phonological working memory ability, or musical ability and training. These results suggest that a “listen-and-sing” learning method can facilitate verbatim memory for spoken foreign language phrases.”

Time to learn the Hiragana Song!

Bilingual resistance to dementia

10 Nov

A study published in the journal Neurology strengthens the case that bilingualism is associated with resistance to dementia. Here is the abstract:

Objectives: The purpose of the study was to determine the association between bilingualism and age at onset of dementia and its subtypes, taking into account potential confounding factors.

Methods: Case records of 648 patients with dementia (391 of them bilingual) diagnosed in a specialist clinic were reviewed. The age at onset of first symptoms was compared between monolingual and bilingual groups. The influence of number of languages spoken, education, occupation, and other potentially interacting variables was examined.

Results: Overall, bilingual patients developed dementia 4.5 years later than the monolingual ones. A significant difference in age at onset was found across Alzheimer disease dementia as well as frontotemporal dementia and vascular dementia, and was also observed in illiterate patients. There was no additional benefit to speaking more than 2 languages. The bilingual effect on age at dementia onset was shown independently of other potential confounding factors such as education, sex, occupation, and urban vs rural dwelling of subjects.

Conclusions: This is the largest study so far documenting a delayed onset of dementia in bilingual patients and the first one to show it separately in different dementia subtypes. It is the first study reporting a bilingual advantage in those who are illiterate, suggesting that education is not a sufficient explanation for the observed difference. The findings are interpreted in the context of the bilingual advantages in attention and executive functions.

Here is a good video summarizing the results and describing both the strengths and limitations of the study.

This report, and other findings, strengthen my belief that foreign language learning may be the best form cognitive engagement for adults wishing to reduce the risk of dementia.

An overview of Memrise

8 Jul

I am going to make a bold prediction: spaced repetition software will revolutionize education. Merging the principles of memory first discovered by Hermann Ebbinghaus with sophisticated software now allows us to make difficult memory tasks and make them both easier and more efficient.

Let’s take the example of learning a foreign language vocabulary. Vocabulary learning may be the biggest hurdle for people learning a new language. Spaced repetition software allows you to master vocabulary with small amounts of daily practice. The most persuasive argument I can make here is experiential. I invite you to try Memrise.

Memrise is the brain child of memory grand master Ed Cooke. It is a well designed  online spaced repetition flashcard program.

To use Memrise first visit the homepage:


Click start and create a free account.

mem-log in

After you have created your account you can choose flash cards  from an astonishingly large list of languages and other topics.

mem languages available

Here is my dashboard page showing two of the  languages I am studying

my dashboard

Memrise use a garden metaphor to describe learning. “Planting” means adding words to the list you want to learn, while, “watering” refers to your daily review. To get the most out of Memrise you should plan to water everyday (a process that usually takes just a few minutes) and to plant when you feel ready to move onto to new material.

Everyday, Memrise will test you on some subset of your chosen words. It will do this either by fill in the blank questions or multiple choice.

question answer

The software will evaluate how well you know each word and decide when to ask you again. If you do not know a word it will schedule to ask you again very soon. If you do know a word it increases the interval before it repeats that question. This spaced repetition procedure is known to counteract forgetting.

Memrise also provides you with user generated mnemonics to help you lean words. At the end of each session it gives you a summary of your work for that day. There is a point system that serves as a motivator.

Since this is a web based service you can access Memrise from anywhere. Memrise now has smartphone apps available. Start building a better memory today!


Big learning in small doses

26 Jun

I am an advocate of taking on big learning projects. While I enjoy Sudoku puzzles, they may not be challenging enough to have a large effect on our cognitive function. Big learning, that is trying to learn a  challenging new skill or master some body of information, is our best bet for long term memory improvement. Examples of big learning would include studying a foreign language, learning to play a musical instrument, or, finally, mastering calculus.

These things are hard, but I believe they are in the reach of  most adults. People often respond to this advice by saying that they don’t have the time or that the goal is so distant that it is not even worth trying.

My approach is that big learning tasks can be taken in small doses. My inspiration is a book,  Small Change: It’s the Little Things in Life That Make a Big Difference, by Susan and Larry Terkel. [Full disclosure, Susan and Larry are friends and my wife and I were married by Larry.  How many people can claim to be married by their yoga teacher?]

The message of Small Change is that we can make our lives better by small incremental changes in our daily behavior. I have come to see this as one of the most powerful ideas in my life. Imagine you want to learn a foreign language. This seems so difficult to most of us as to be beyond possibility, but imagine you dedicated just 15 minutes a day to listening to a Pimsleur language program. That would mean an hour of language study every four days. That would be over 90 hours of language study every year. Would this alone make you fluent in your target language? Probably not, but I guarantee you would know and remember a lot more than if you had done nothing.

My suggestions: 1) take up a big learning project, 2) break it down into small daily does, and 3) begin!

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