Saturday, 26 July 2014

Are drugs the answer to learning languages?

* Apologies for the hiatus! I have been extremely busy recently, but have now written up a stock of posts so should be back to posting once a week from now on! *

If you could, would you pop a pill if it helped you learn a language? What would the social and moral implications of this be? A live debate I recently attended run by The Guardian tackled some of these issues whilst discussing the subject of performance-enhancing drugs, and the potential use of these to aid and improve our ability at learning a language.

A recent study of nearly 2000 students at different universities around the UK has found that 1 in 5 students have taken performance-enhancing drugs such as modafonil to study. Modafinil is a drug normally prescribed to treat narcolepsy (a condition that results from a person’s brain being unable to regulate sleep and wake cycles normally), but is commonly used by students to help concentrate on work or stay awake for long periods of time. Drugs such as these are becoming more commonplace, and the idea of using these for specific activities is being brought to light.

However, it’s also important to realise that (currently) these drugs are no more performance-enhancing than going for a jog before sitting down to work – exercise can also increase cognition and neurogenesis, two of the main claimed benefits of these drugs. Also, it is a complete myth that you only use 10% of your brain (if this was true, we would have evolved by now to have much smaller brains and only use the bits we need), and so taking these drugs will not help you access new areas or unlock new potential!

There is a misconception that taking performance-enhancing drugs will help you access
 new areas of your mind like in the movie Limitless, shown above.
One the arguments against using performance-enhancing drugs to learn a language explored the neural benefits – learning a new language the traditional way involves actively suppressing your native tongue. In doing so, you improve cognition, and activities like these (or learning to play a new instrument) are known to help prevent the onset of degenerative conditions such as dementia. Surely we should encourage the learning of a language then, rather than set an example to just pop a pill and use a shortcut?

Another point of view I found particularly interesting was the subject of disparity. It is no secret that knowing more than one language is an extremely employable characteristic, and allows freedom of movement for workers. However, if there was a drug available to enhance our ability to learn a language, it is highly unlikely that it would be free – this then leads to an issue where only the rich can afford it, and so only the rich benefit. This surely would only increase disparity of wealth in the long run?

However, whilst the drugs currently available are not massively influential, there is no denying that use of performance-enhancing drugs do just what they say on the tin as shown in the diagram below. One group was given a placebo, the other modafinil. It is clear to see that those in the second group performed better - they used fewer moves to get the correct answer in the cognitive test during the experiment. Considering these drugs are not considered to be hugely effective currently, the potential for development and research into this area of pharmacology is huge.

Source: Muller et al Neuropharmacology 64 (2013) 490-495
However this generates another issue, especially if these drugs became commonplace and students were allowed to take them during exams. How would we regulate this? Surely it would be unfair if some students took these drugs before an exam and were able to gain a slightly higher mark than others who chose not to? Is this a form of cheating? 

On the other hand however, you could say the same about those that choose to have a coffee or a cigarette before an exam – the caffeine and nicotine both give you the same boost a drug such as modafinil would.

One of the speakers in the debate, Shaolan Hsueh, is the founder of Chineasy, a platform for learning Chinese. She described how the idea for her website was born out of trying to teach her two children the language. Chinese, as you may already know, does not use letters in the same sense as we do in English – instead the symbols represent sounds or situations that link together and read like a picture. She explained that you have to understand and draw on what the picture is in order to understand the sound/word. For example, in the picture below you can see the sign for fire and woods. When put together, these two symbols represent the word ‘burning’. Shaolan argued that if you took a performance enhancing drug to learn the language, you may be able to speak it more quickly than someone who chose not to take the drug, but you will not fully understand the story behind the images and not be able to form connections between the symbols.

A few examples of the combinations of symbols from Chineasy 
This is an interesting theory, and also raises the question of plasticity – if you learn a language through use of drugs, are you actually burning the knowledge into your long term memory, or would you just have an idea of the language? In other words, if someone then rearranged the symbols above with other signs, would you be able to work out what the new word meant? Or would you only know what you have been shown? It is definitely true that with our current method of learning a language, you get better the more you know – you can make an educated guess more easily when you rely on the information you have already retained about that language.

What do you think? In the future should it be the norm to cut corners and use performance enhancing drugs to make our lives easier? Is this a sign of things to come? Or should we embrace the culture and heritage surrounding a language and use this as a tool to improve our knowledge?

Here is a link to a short highlights video from the talk I attended, I highly recommend checking it out!


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