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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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.