The Joys of Language Acquisition


Arguably the key to modern humankind’s evolutionary success, the ability to communicate effectively through language is a wondrous skill. But why are we so keen to learn new words? And how does our brain help us do so?

According to a new paper in Current Biology from researchers at Universidad de Barcelona, learning new words activates the same neural pathways that are associated with reward processing – as well as the cortical language regions.

Subjects were placed in an fMRI machine and given two sentences with an unknown word in both, which they then had to consider, and extrapolate the meaning of. For instance, the screen would show “Every Sunday the grandmother went to the jedin” and “The man was buried in the jedin.” Ultimately, the subject would learn that the ‘jedin’ meant ‘graveyard.’ Following this, the participants completed two runs of a standard-event-related money gambling task.

The results revealed that when these words were memorised, there was an increased activation in the ventral striatum – a region known to be associated with reward – which also was activated when earning money in the gambling task. This reward circuitry has extensively been shown to become active in response to food, sex, and even drugs.

The authors hypothesise that this interaction between the language centres in the brain and those responsible for reward may be a driving factor for language acquisition.

The full text can be found here.





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Max Sanderson

Science Communicator & Neuroscientist

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