Problems learning new languages? It’s your genes fault!

Are you learning a new language and having difficulties despite all your best efforts? Do you feel huge frustration seeing other people learn very quickly, while you struggle to make any progress? Don’t despair: the problem could be genetic.

A study by the University of Washington has shown that many difficulties in learning languages could be down to the COMT gene. This fascinating research involved 79 Chinese students who came to America to enrol at college: 44 of them decided to take an intensive English course to improve their command of the language. During the three weeks of lessons, the participants’ brain activity was monitored through magnetic resonance and then compared with students who did not take the course. The results were truly astonishing. In fact, certain students who followed the lessons displayed alterations in their white matter, i.e. the tissue that connects the various parts of the brain. In particular, there was an improvement in the neural connections used for learning foreign languages, an outcome that was nowhere to be found in the group of students who did not attend the course. According to the researchers, this white matter was changed by two of the three variants of the COMT gene: only students with the first or second variant experienced this change, while those with the third variant did not undergo any brain structure alterations. This data was confirmed by the performances achieved in the course’s final exams. The researchers estimate that variants of the COMT gene account for 46% of learning and absorbing a foreign language, while the remaining 54% is strictly linked to individual effort.

So don’t worry if you’re one of the ones with the third variant of the COMT gene: you can now blame it on your genes! However, this shouldn’t be an excuse: study and dedication are still the most important way of achieving the best results.


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