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The Perfect Pitch for a Language Pill
January 31, 2014 - By: - In: In the News / Awards, Language - 1 Comments

What if you could pop a pill to make learning a second language as easy as child’s play?

That would make things a lot easier than grinding it out in the language lab. Do they even have language labs anymore? No matter what Professor Pimsleur may claim about tackling a new tongue, learning a new language is, like, hard. Now, scientists are testing a magic pill to make that language-learning beanstalk take root and grow.

Little kids acquire language rapidly at a tender age thanks to their mental elasticity. Brand new baby brains are barraged with new information that must be sorted from scratch to make sense of the world. Synapses are laid down and torn up as baby adapts ASAP. As any old fogey can tell you, that kind of “synaptic plasticity” lasts for only a few years. Once that mental window slides shut in later childhood, perceptual preferences are locked down, which is why learning a language as an adult can be such a headache.

Our brains have passed beyond the critical period, “a fixed window of time … during which experience has lasting effects on the development of brain function and behavior,” according to researchers who wondered if it was possible for grownups to reopen the critical period window .

To test the theory, research scientist Judit Gervain and a team of psychologists attempted to teach adult volunteers perfect pitch. “Absolute pitch, the ability to identify or produce the pitch of a sound without a reference point, has a critical period, i.e., it can only be acquired early in life,” the researchers noted.  Half of the male monolingual subjects were given a common anticonvulsant, valproate (VPA), a HDAC inhibitor. The rest received a placebo. The subjects taking valproate learned to identify pitch better than those taking the placebo, “evidence that valproate facilitated critical learning in the adult human brain.”

Naturally enough, tonal talent goes hand-in-hand with language skills. Speakers of tonal languages like Chinese are far more likely to have perfect pitch than non-tonal language speakers. The researchers believe that “speakers of tone language naturally acquire this feature during the critical period for speech acquisition.”

So what’s next?  Do our language students start going to Lance Armstrong and take anti-seizure medication before their TOEFL test? Talk about an off-label gold mine. It’s hard to argue against smart pills, especially if you’ve stopped taking them, because you’re probably less coherent than when you were taking them.  Just think of “Flowers for Algernon” and recall when the smart pills stopped working.

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