New brain scan study sheds light on linguistic aptitude

model of brain

There’s a popular assumption that language learning is effortless for children and much more difficult for adults.

This resonant idea that there’s a magic window of language learning aptitude — a “critical period” where it’s easy — has been questioned in recent years. Some say that learning isn’t easier for children: it’s just that as adults we forget how much we struggled to learn things. (Remember crying when you couldn’t tie your shoes? I do!)

But there is research support for the concept of language aptitude, and a study reported in sheds further light on this topic. In her article, “Why it’s hard for adults to learn a second language,” researcher Brianna Yamasaki shared how she and Chantel Prat — both at the University of Washington — did brain scans on adults in resting states, looking at how their brains functioned, and then tested them while engaged in language-learning activities. The findings: certain features of brain organization correlated with increased linguistic aptitude.

From the study:

“When we correlated our measures with learning rate, we found that patterns of brain activity that have been linked to linguistic processes predicted how easily people could learn a second language.

Patterns of activity over the right side of the brain predicted upwards of 60 percent of the differences in second language learning across individuals. This finding is consistent with previous research showing that the right half of the brain is more frequently used with a second language.

Our results suggest that the majority of the language learning differences between participants could be explained by the way their brain was organized before they even started learning.”

It’s not clear why the article frames this finding as distinguishing between children and adults, since the research did not contrast the two. It would be interesting to see a replication done with children to see if more children displayed this aptitude.

The good news, as Yamasaki reassures us, is that aptitude isn’t predestination: it may make things easier, but it doesn’t render language learning impossible for the rest of us. Plus, she says, brains are adaptable, and linguistic aptitude may be improved over time.

Read her full account of the study here at

Discussed in this post:

Yamasaki, B. (2016). Why it’s hard for adults to learn a second language. The Conversation. Retrieved 25 September 2016, from