• Question: Based on what I think I have understood about the disproval of left/right brain dominance etc, is there such a thing as someone who is naturally "good at languages"? Or are all pupils equally capable of excelling in foreign languages, dependent upon how good the teacher is?

    Asked by Anon to Sarah, Matt D, Joe, Chris J, Catriona, Anna R, Alice on 27 Apr 2015.
    • Photo: anon

      anon answered on 27 Apr 2015:

      Good question. I wrote a blog piece on the differences in learning between boys and girls in school, which many people have equated to differences in the structure of the brain. You can read the whole piece here http://bit.ly/1Jv62AW

      Here is one of the most relevant portions though:

      “Research has shown significant differences in the way minds of girls and boys function in relation to learning. Girl’s have been shown to have a larger hippocampus (memory storage area in the brain), stronger neural connectors (more sensually detailed memory storage, listening skills, etc.), and a faster developed/more active prefrontal cortex (reducing impulsivity). Boy’s brains have also been shown to have less oxytocin (a bonding chemical that helps neutralize impulsivity) and compartmentalize learning (less multitasking ability).”

      That being said, I believe the environment shapes our ability to learn more so than any innate differences. It is likely that girls do better at learning languages because western culture shapes young girls to be more vocal (i.e. talk on the phone more, sing more, etc.). I do believe that all pupils are equally capable of excelling in foreign languages, depending on the quality of the teacher. Some will be more interested or comfortable learning a new language and it will seem to ‘come easier’ to them – but this isn’t necessarily related to innate differences in the brain – its probably just as related to their culture, personality, interest and experiences.

    • Photo: Chris Jarrold

      Chris Jarrold answered on 27 Apr 2015:

      I think there is something in the view that some people are better at language learning than others. There’s quite a bit of research showing that children (and adults’) verbal short-term memory skills are linked to their abilities to learn new vocabulary. You can measure verbal short-term memory abilities by seeing how many numbers or words a child can hear and then repeat in the correct order – studies have shown that children who remember more items on this kind of task are better at learning foreign vocabulary (that is, the names of things in a foreign language). Also, adults who are proficient at more than one language also tend to have higher than average verbal short-term memory scores.

      Of course, there’s more to learning language than just learning the vocabulary in that language, but this is one aspect where people do seem to differ.

      If you can get hold of it, this academic paper is good on this:

      Baddeley, A., Gathercole, S., & Papagno, C. (1998). The phonological loop as a language learning device. Psychological Review, 105, 158-173.