Neuroscientists boost language learning with safe device

Neuro researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and University of California San Francisco (UCSF) have revealed a language learning device that boosts the innate neurological ability of humans to acquire, process and understand a new language.

When it comes to language learning, there is no such thing as an “easy” or “difficult” language to learn. Learning a new language is a complex, time-intensive, patience-testing task, and even the most well-suited language learners can find this commitment a bit daunting. 

Things can get relatively trickier if English is your first language as the unfamiliar grammatical rules, linguistic details and ambiguous tones might come off as frivolous. Mandarin Chinese, a language spoken across most of northern and western China, is considered as one of the most challenging languages to learn, especially for the majority of anglophones who are unaware of the subtle changes in tones and sounds that refer to different meanings.

Neuroscientists unveil language learning device

However, no matter how challenging these hurdles may seem from the outset, they shouldn’t be the reasons for forgoing language learning altogether. Now, a recent study published in Science journal shows that a group of researchers have achieved a breakthrough in the process by improving the distinguishing ability of English speakers between various tones, accents and voice modulations.

The language learning device accurately times the non-invasive stimulation of the vagus nerve (nVNS) – the longest connecting nerve in the body that carries an extensive range of signals to the brain. Researchers saw a drastic improvement in grasping different tones and accents by using vagus nerve stimulation technique. 

According to the lead researcher Dr Fernando Llanos, the tool makes the entire process of language learning easy to understand and follow by bringing about an improvement in the overall cognitive skills in humans by which their brain attempts to make the connection as they learn different concepts.

While the applications of the nVNS have been limited to the non-medical treatment of headaches so far, this is the first study that demonstrates its potential in boosting complex cognitive skills that come in handy when learning a new language. 

A simplified learning process that shatters misconceptions

The device consists of a simulator that is required to be placed just outside the ear. It then sends imperceptible signals to the vagus nerve, thus simulating it and enhancing the attention span during the learning and improving the ability to focus on the language learning concepts.

When tested on a group of 36 English speakers, the device activated the vagus nerves at different intervals. At the same time, the volunteers carried out the task of identifying distinctive tones used in Mandarin Chinese.

By the end of the training, the study participants, who received the nVNS stimulus, showed at least 13 per cent more improvement in telling apart four primary tones used when speaking Mandarin Chinese than the ones who didn’t receive.

Another research author confirmed that the device breaks down the common misconception that adults are not well-suited to language learning and children, with their super-flexible brains, are more likely to make the necessary connections. So, this device is essentially levelling the playing field when it comes to learning and grasping new concepts, he added.

Today, language learners everywhere are dissuaded as their brains struggle to construct new cognitive frameworks. In Northern Ireland, for example, several language schools are running on empty as they engage in a considerable scrimmage to attract more students through monetary rewards.

An incentive for language learners

While there is no substitute to sustained and consistent practice, the nVNS stimulation could give 13 to 15 per cent more chances at success in their initial few sessions, thus encouraging them to continue further. Researchers are also testing whether prolonged use of the tVNS can further enhance these benefits – a result that could set the course for more extensive commercial applications in long-term language learning.

The improvements we have seen so far have been a result of a completely non-invasive and safe approach, thus expanding the scale and scope of the technology in medical applications. It can prove to be a turning point for particularly those who have suffered from partial brain damage as it can make the process of rehabilitation much easier for patients. However, to confirm that, a number of clinical trials will need to be conducted to ensure that it really does enhance brain plasticity.

For now, we can just take pleasure in the fact that foreign language learners should not be bogged down because they lack the innate talent, required exposure, or an adequate learning environment. Technological advancements are transforming learners from passive listeners to active learners and enabling more profound and enriching linguistic immersion.