Generation Ritalin: between 10 and 30% of students are estimated to have taken ADHD medication. Photo Getty
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Revising on Ritalin: the students who use ADHD meds

Between 10 and 30 per cent of British university students have taken pills such as Modafinil and Ritalin to improve their memory and heighten their concentration.

Would you take a drug to help you learn a language? If the numbers of students who have taken ADHD and narcolepsy medications as “study drugs” are anything to go by, the answer is probably yes. Various surveys have estimated that between 10 and 30 per cent of British university students have taken pills such as Modafinil and Ritalin to improve their memory and heighten their concentration. Now research suggests that drugs could also be used to speed up language learning.

For failing linguists, this is welcome news. We pick up languages best as toddlers, when the brain is most malleable and the area responsible for language development, the cerebral cortex, is a de facto clean slate. Psychologists have shown that babies born in bilingual households will master two languages in the same time it takes to learn just one – but children who have grown up in isolation will never grasp more than the basics of speech. Our brain’s ability to reshape itself declines with age.

Recent research suggests this could be reversed. The mood-stabilising drug valproate has been found to “reopen critical-period neuroplasticity” – the capacity for our grey matter to remould itself based on our real-world experiences. Scientists hope it could allow adults to absorb foreign languages with the same natural ease as children.

It’s an exciting idea, but drug-enhanced language learning has its drawbacks. Valproate’s common side effects include weight gain and hair loss, which for many is too high a price to pay for learning Spanish. Nor do we know about the long-term effects.

On 10 July, the British Academy in London hosted a debate on whether drugs could be a solution to poor foreign-language skills in the UK. The panel included Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant who speaks 11 languages fluently and learned Icelandic in a week. He was quick to dismiss medical quick fixes.

“No drug can be a substitute for the social element of language learning,” Tammet said. “It’s a question we wouldn’t even be asking in other countries.

“In most parts of the world, not being multilingual is a handicap which can be worse than Asperger’s.”

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood