With a short test of brain wave patterns, researchers showed they could predict how fast an adult can acquire a second language.
The study of how we differ in our ability to learn a second language is useful not only for understanding bilingualism, but also for researching the processes of learning and neural plasticity - how well the brain changes and adapts through life.
In the journal Brain and Language, researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle describe how a 5-minute measurement of resting-state brain activity explained 60 percent of the variability in second-language learning in a group of adult college students.
The 19 participants were aged 18-31 years and had no previous experience in learning French. For 8 weeks, they went to the research lab twice a week for a 30-minute, "immersive virtual reality," computer-based training session to learn French.
Before the participants started their language training, they were invited to sit with their eyes closed for 5 minutes while wearing an electroencephalogram (EEG) headset.
The EEG headset measured naturally occurring patterns of brain activity in the form of alpha, beta, delta, gamma, and theta brain waves.
EEG patterns predicted ability to learn second language
The researchers compared the pre-learning brain wave patterns with various measures of language learning during and at the end of the training program.
At various stages of the program, the learner completed a quiz. If they attained a minimum score on the quiz, they could move to the next level. Using the quiz scores, the researchers were able to calculate how fast each participant progressed through the curriculum.
The participants also took a proficiency test when they completed the 8-week program. This measured, for example, how many lessons they had completed.
The results showed that while the fastest learner completed the lessons twice as fast as the slowest, both attained the same level of proficiency.
However, when the researchers compared learners' EEG brain wave patterns from before the program with the various measures taken during and after the 8-week course, they found some interesting links.
For example, higher power in beta and gamma brain waves, and lower power in delta and theta waves, predicted faster second language learning.
This, together with other brain wave measures, led study leader Chantel Prat, an associate professor of psychology, and colleagues to conclude:
"We've found that a characteristic of a person's brain at rest predicted 60 percent of the variability in their ability to learn a second language in adulthood."
The researchers say their study is the first to use EEG patterns of resting-state brain activity to predict the subsequent rate at which people can learn a second language.
Earlier this year, a team from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, showed how preexisting differences in resting-state brain connectivity could predict how well a student learned a second language. However, they used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a more expensive technology.
So, does the finding mean that people whose brain wave patterns predict they are likely to be less successful or slower at learning should not try to learn a second language? Prof. Prat says not at all, and she gives two reasons.
First, the fact the brain wave patterns only predicted 60 percent of variability in learning means there is plenty of room for other important factors - such as motivation - to influence learning.
Second, it is possible, Prof. Prat explains, to alter one's resting-state brain wave patterns with neurofeedback training - an approach where you can strengthen brain activity patterns that are linked to better thinking and learning skills.
She and her team are starting to investigate this angle. They are looking at aspects of brain function that are linked to being able to learn well, she says, and explains that their goal is to "use this research in combination with technologies such as neurofeedback training to help everyone perform at their best."
"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."
Prof. Chantel Prat
The idea is that people keen to learn a second language but who do not have the desirable brain wave patterns could perhaps use neurofeedback training to alter the patterns and help themselves learn faster.
Immersive virtual reality language training
The immersive virtual reality language training program that the researchers used in the study is called the Operational Language and Cultural Training System (OLCTS). It was developed using funds provided by the United States Office of Naval Research, who also funded the study.
The aim of OLCTS is to make service men and women proficient in a foreign language with 20 hours of training. The self-paced program guides the learner through scenes and stories where they communicate with different actors in the new language. A voice recognition component also allows them to check their pronunciation.
The following video is a short demonstration of how the learner uses OLCTS: