So size does matter?
I was a little dismayed to discover that the ability of an adult to learn a second language may be pre-determined (i.e. there’s not a heck of a lot I can do about it at this point). Researchers in the USA have found that, based solely on the size of a small auditory brain structure, they can quite accurately predict an adult’s performance in a language-learning exercise. The structure being examined is called Heschl’s Gyrus (HG) and accounts for only about 0.2% of the average adult’s brain mass. The HG is associated with recognising changes in pitch and tone, so it is relatively unsurprising that a well-developed HG will help when learning tonal languages. The team in the USA discovered that people with larger HGs (often related to experience with musical training at a young age) did far better at differentiating and recognising 18 invented words involving three different tones.
So, it seems that adults who studied music in childhood have a physically-measurable advantage when it comes to learning a second language.
This doesn’t mean that the musically-disinclined among us should give up on our language studies. There’s no reason that you won’t become just as proficient as if you had a bigger HG, it will just take a little bit more work. Also, this study used an invented tonal language, and the study participants were all American citizens with no former exposure to tonal languages (which makes me wonder if people who speak tonal languages have bigger HGs than those who don’t). Tonal languages account for only half of the languages in the world, so there are plenty more to choose from if you feel intimidated.
Besides, not all of us have a natural ability to excel at the things we enjoy, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying, or stop enjoying them!
Full article available on Eurekalert.