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.”