Why Humans Have the Unique Ability to Learn New Words

 

Scientists have found a pathway in our brains that is responsible for the acquisition of new words, an ability unmatched by any other species; chimps coming in second place with a limit of no more than a hundred words. This could be exciting news for those who are polyglots or who are learning a new language for either travel, school, or the workplace.

The common notion is that we learn new words through hearing them first and then spitting them back out, in other words, input and output, or recognition and recall. Very little is known about what happens inside the brain itself within the intricate neural mechanisms.

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Researchers from King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry have been able to draw out the pathways in the brain which are activated when learning new words. What the researchers found was that a collection of nerve fibers called the arcuate fasciculus connect the auditory and motor regions and is responsible for our ability to articulate new words. Depending on how this region is developed, everybody’s ability to acquire new words and languages will vary.

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The researchers have also concluded that this pathway does not exist in other species, and that it is unique to humans. Yes, chimps can learn new words, however, their vocabulary is limited to double digits on average. Also, consider how many species you know that are bilingual or trilingual? We are pretty awesome if you take that into consideration. This newfound research could have implications on how new words are taught in language courses across schools and how quickly we can discover language disorders in individuals.

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The study was composed of twenty-seven volunteers. The individuals’ brain structures were imaged before a word learning task and MRI was used to detect regions of the brain that were most active.

They found a strong relationship between the ability to remember words and the structure of arcuate fasciculus, which connects two brain areas: the territory of Wernicke, related to auditory language decoding, and Broca’s area, which coordinates the movements associated with speech and the language processing.

Participants who had higher success in learning new words had one thing in common: their arcuate fasciculus was more myelinated, which basically means that electrical signals moved more quickly back and forth than they did in other participants. You can think of it as a faster data transfer rate like (or unlike, depending on your provider) your internet.

All this means is that in order for our kids to learn new words and to continue to acquire new language skills, it is important that we speak to them orally rather than through text messages and Skype, unless you’re voice chatting that is.

Sources:

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-07/kcl-sik072213.php

http://carta.anthropogeny.org/moca/topics/arcuate-fasciculus

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myelin