Thursday, June 25, 2015

Can genes predict foreign language learning skills?

High IQ helps

Every frustrated language learner has, at some point, proclaimed that they just "don’t have the gift" of picking up foreign languages.

It’s easy to imagine that the aptitude for learning a new tongue exists somewhere beyond our control, perhaps in our blood or brain chemistry, or in the drinking water that flows through Northern Europe and feeds the frustratingly fluent English-speaking Scandinavians from Oslo to Helsinki.

Language teachers will explain to students that anyone can learn a foreign language, and that the skill comes from nurture and not nature. But does biology play any role at all? Is there any part of our DNA that can predict whether or not we can be successful polyglots?

In fact, neurobiologists have identified a gene that correlates to language. The FOXP2 gene was discovered in the 1990s through a study of a British family in which three generations suffered from severe speech problems.

The 15 afflicted members of this family shared an inherited mutation of FOXP2, a gene that plays a central role in the brain’s language production processes, both cognitively (through pattern-mapping abilities) and physically (developing the facial muscles needed for articulating complicated sounds).

This discovery pioneered new notions of a human ‘language gene’ and led to a trend in evolutionary research in the early 20th century, comparing FOXP2 genes in humans and other species, to shed light on how humans developed the capacity for language.

Recently, that mutated FOXP2 gene discovered in that British family has, surprisingly, been associated with foreign language learning ability, according to researchers at the University of Texas at Austin.

Assistant professor Bharath Chandrasekaran from the university’s Moody College of Communication discovered this association in the same genetic variation in FOXP2 that had been connected to language impairment nearly two decades ago.

Genetic research is strengthening the connection between biology and language learning

The research, published in the May edition of the Journal of Neuroscience, involved a pool of 204 young adults, who were tasked with listening to unfamiliar speech sounds and categorising them.

Participants then gave saliva samples, from which researchers found that individuals with a certain variation on the FOXP2 gene were both faster and more accurate at doing the language task.

So how can knowledge of a learner’s DNA help in the process of mastering a new language? Chandrasekaran and his colleagues did not propose specific approaches, but linguistically speaking, it would be difficult for language trainers to focus on one specific dimension of the learner’s brain.

While the aforementioned research references a specific ‘language gene’ in the human brain, studying a new language actually requires several parts of the brain, comprised of several different genes, to work together. This includes the cognitive processes of memory, reasoning, perception, and information ordering. The strength and efficiency of these processes vary naturally from person to person.

Regardless of whether that variation comes from one’s genes, one’s surroundings, or both, these processes are pivotal in second language learning.

Though genetic research continues to strengthen the connection between biology and language in humans, we still have a long way to go in determining how to optimally apply this knowledge in the world of language learning.


Nobel-winning scientist who was forced to resign over ‘sexist comments’ could be reinstated

The scientist who was allegedly forced to quit over a joke about women in laboratories could get his job back, it was claimed yesterday.  Nobel Prize winner Sir Tim Hunt, 72, sparked online outrage with his suggestion that women in science fall in love with men, are distracting and cry too easily. He resigned from his honorary post at University College London hours later.

His wife Professor Mary Collins, also a scientist, has since claimed he gave in his notice after a senior member of staff at the university called her and said he would be sacked if he failed to stand down.

Members of UCL’s governing council are mounting a potential rebellion over the university’s handling of the affair – with it now being claimed that talks next month could lead to Sir Tim being reinstated.  Many are said to feel that it over-reacted to the social media furore over his remarks in South Korea two weeks ago.

A UCL source claimed that there was no ‘official’ advice to Sir Tim’s wife that he should resign and that the conversation ‘appears to have been misinterpreted’.

And a senior council figure told The Sunday Times that there was ‘much unhappiness’ with the way the row had been dealt with, adding: ‘There will be a discussion at the next meeting and reinstatement may well be on the agenda.’

UCL is now coming under pressure from leading scientists to reinstate Sir Tim, and apologise for making him resign - but he said while it would be 'churlish' of him to turn down such an offer if it came, his work there was 'over'.


Australia: Online universities helping students become the first in their family to obtain higher education

More than half of 41,000 students studying online are first in their family to go to university

Online education is giving a generation of Australians the opportunity to become the first in their families to pursue higher education, a new report has found.

Open Universities Australia (OUA) today released the findings of their June report on “first In family” students, revealing an estimated two out of three students enrolled in university courses online are the first person in their immediate family to pursue higher education.

According to the findings of the First in Family report, an estimated 67.7 per cent of online university students are the first in their family to study.

“First in family” students are more likely to be mature age students, with 37 per cent being over 35 years old. Similarly, 66 per cent of “first in family” students are women, compared to 58 per cent of OUA students overall.

Among “first in family” students, the most popular tertiary courses were in education (18 per cent), arts and humanities (35 per cent), business (22 per cent).

OUA together with the University of Wollongong and the University of Newcastle this year completed a nationwide research project called Breaking the Barriers to identify the challenges facing “first in family” students.

Dr Cathy Stone, who established Student Success services at OUA, was part of a project team led by the University of Wollongong, which conducted research during 2014-2015 with the support of the Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching.

Dr Stone said university was no longer limited to an elite demographic. “More than half of OUA students are the first in their family to go to university, which shows online learning is removing barriers for people who would traditionally have not gone to university,” she said.

“They are investing in their own futures and their families’ future. Most of them are not school leavers but are older students, who work full time or part time as well as having family responsibilities. Through studying online, they have the flexibility to study at times that suit them, so that they can achieve their goals and gain their university degree.”

Following the release of the Breaking the Barriers report, the project team launched a First in Family initiative including a website and toolkit of resources to help support these students and their families.

Dr Stone said that OUA is recognising this emerging student trend and providing these students with specific and appropriate support.

“This is a demographic of Australians for which traditional face-to-face learning is often not possible, whereas online learning provides them with the opportunity to achieve university qualifications,” she said.

“A student who is the first in their family to study towards a university degree will face different challenges compared with those students who come from families where others have already been to university. Often, these first-in-family students don’t know what to expect and can feel at a disadvantage compared with those around them.”

The Breaking the Barriers report surveyed 173 and interviewed 102 “first in family” students across Australia, and found that many of these students felt out of place at university, lacked confidence in their ability and worried about the financial impact of their decision to study. OUA data also shows that  first-in-family students are more likely to be from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and more likely to live in regional and rural areas.

The findings from the OUA First in Family report found that “first in family” students were slightly more likely than their peers to struggle academically, but were equally likely to complete their qualifications.

About the Open Universities Australia

Owned by seven of Australia’s premier universities, Open Universities Australia (OUA) is the national leader in quality online tertiary education. Enrolling more than 250,000 students since 1993, OUA provides access to over 1700 units and 180 qualifications taught by more than 20 leading Australian universities and tertiary education providers. Visit

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