Brain waves predict speed of second language learning

FOR the first time, researchers show how a short test of brain wave patterns can 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.
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. “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.

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