Neuroscientists have found that the resting-state brain activity - the neural activity that goes on while we are doing nothing in particular - helps some people learn new languages faster.
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"The way someone's brain functions while at rest predicts 60 per cent of their capacity for learning a second language," said study author Chantel Prat from University of Washington.
In the small yet significant study, published recently by the US Office of Naval Research, 19 participants between the ages of 18 and 31 with no previous experience learning French, visited Prat's lab twice weekly over eight weeks for 30-minute French lessons delivered through a virtual-reality computer program called Operational Language and Cultural Training System (OLCTS).
OLCTS is designed to make military personnel proficient in a foreign language after 20 hours of training. The program guides users through a series of scenes and stories. A voice-recognition component enables users to check their pronunciation.
For five minutes before and after the eight-week curriculum, Prat had participants sit still, close their eyes, breathe deeply and wear an EEG (electroencephalogram) headset measuring resting-state brain activity from the cerebral cortex - an area of the brain crucial to memory, attention and perception.
"The brain waves we recorded reflect synchronized firing of large networks of neurons," Prat said.
"We found that the larger the networks were in 'beta' frequencies (brain frequencies associated with language and memory), the faster our participants learned French," he added.
To confirm this, at the end of the eight-week language program, participants also completed a proficiency test covering the lessons they had finished. Those with the larger "beta" networks learned French twice as quickly.
However, Prat pointed out that language learning rates were the only things predicted by the recorded brain activity. Participants with smaller "beta" networks still learned the material to which they were exposed equally well.
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"There's more that goes into learning a new language than speed," Prat said. "You also have to factor in motivation, study habits and practice methods," he added.