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Genetic Variation Essential in Language Learning During Adulthood

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Posted June 8, 2015

Just because you’re not a teenager anymore doesn’t mean you can’t learn new things efficiently. Researchers from the University of Texas, Austin, have found that one’s ability to pick up a new language in adulthood is largely dependent on genetic variation. Specifically, the “Forkhead Box Protein P2” (or FOXP2) gene, which has been implicated in disordered speech and language in past research.

New research suggests genetic variation may play a key role in how fast people switch between different learning systems, which, in turn, determines their ability to learn a new language in adulthood. Image credit: Duncan Hull via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

New research suggests genetic variation may play a key role in how fast people switch between different learning systems, which, in turn, determines their ability to learn a new language in adulthood. Image credit: Duncan Hull via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

“Contrary to the idea that adults have difficulty in learning new languages, we find that some adults are exceptional at learning them,” said study lead author Bharath Chandrasekaran, an Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the university’s Moody College of Communication. “Understanding why this variability is there is a critical first step to designing more optimal language training programs. The study results offer a critical clue about the genetic and brain basis of speech learning.

For the study, the researchers first asked 214 participants (111 of whom were females) to categorise unfamiliar foreign speech sounds through a test, and then performed a genotype analysis of saliva samples gathered from each of the participant before the study.

Results showed that those who had a particular variation of the FOXP2 gene learned the sounds faster and with more accuracy.

As part of the study, the researchers also assessed the participants’ specific learning strategies – “procedural” (i.e., acquiring a skill through performance and repetition) and “declarative” (a more explicit method of learning that emphasises understanding, rather than automatic repetition) – to complete the foreign speech sound test.

“Neurocomputational modelling 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,” stated the authors in their paper.

Each of the learning strategy is associated with a different part of the brain – the striatum, located in the forebrain, is associated with “procedural” learning, while the frontal cortex is responsible for “declarative” learning.

Chandrasekaran’s research examines the brain’s role in individual differences in adult language learning and seeks to understand the biological origins of language.

“For years scientists have been trying to better their understanding of how different genes give rise to various aspects of human cognitive functioning,” he said. “Understanding the role of genetic variation in the FOXP2 gene in relation to the development of language only is a small start to what will eventually become a biological understanding of how humans came to learn language.”

The findings were recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Sources: study abstract, news.utexas.edu.

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