Brain shape predicts language learning success

7 April 2006

Fast language learners have more white matter and a less symmetrical brain than slower language learners, according to UCL published today in the journal ‘Cerebral Cortex’.

Dr Narly Golestani, of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, said: “The bigger picture is that we’re starting to understand that brain shape and structure can be informative about people’s abilities or pathologies. Why people are good at some things and not others is evident from these scans, the differences can sometimes be seen just by looking. This might one day allow us to screen for language learning or for language disorders.”

Sixty participants undertook ten blocks of twenty trials of training to learn to distinguish two different sounds – the French ‘dental’ ‘da’ sound and the Hindi ‘retroflex’ ‘da’ sound. Faster language learners recognised the differences in the ‘da’ sounds within a few minutes. Slower learners struggled even after the maximum twenty minutes of learning.

The team took anatomical magnetic resonance imaging (aMRI) scans of the brain structure of the 11 fastest and 10 slowest learners and found a number of anatomical differences between them. This was followed up with diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) scans, which allow finer measurements of white matter brain structure.

Read the full press release.