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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The trouble with a second Brexit referendum

A new vote risks coming too soon for Remainers. But there is an alternative. 

In any given week, a senior political figure will call for a second Brexit referendum (the most recent being David Miliband). It's not hard to see why. EU withdrawal risks proving an act of political and economic self-harm and Leave's victory was narrow (52-48). Had Remain won by a similar margin, the Brexiteers would have immediately demanded a re-run. 

But the obstacles to another vote are significant. Though only 52 per cent backed Brexit, a far larger number (c. 65 per cent) believe the result should be respected. No major party currently supports a second referendum and time is short.

Even if Remainers succeed in securing a vote, it risks being lost. As Theresa May learned to her cost, electorates have a habit of punishing those who force them to polls. "It would simply be too risky," a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Were a second referendum lost, any hope of blocking Brexit, or even softening it, would be ended. 

The vote, as some Remainers note, would also come at the wrong moment. By 2018/19, the UK will, at best, have finalised its divorce terms. A new trade agreement with the EU will take far longer to conclude. Thus, the Brexiteers would be free to paint a false picture of the UK's future relationship. "It would be another half-baked, ill-informed campaign," a Labour MP told me. 

For this reason, as I write in my column this week, an increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). 

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.