Learning a foreign language is considered by many to be a chore; a tedious, time-consuming task that takes big amounts of effort and perseverance on our part. And that’s only learning enough to get by. If our goal is to master that language we’re probably talking about years of our life devoting countless hours to learning and practice. Before you give up on your New Year’s resolution #1 maybe you should read on!
Learning a language is certainly one of the greatest cognitive feats a human being can achieve so it must surely have its rewards. Of course most of us do it expecting something in return, either improving our career prospects, getting that long-desired job promotion or just making sure we won’t get fooled on our next holiday abroad (for some of us it is hard enough to remember how to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in a new language for an entire week anyway). Developing spoken language is a crucial evolutionary milestone for the human species that took much of our brain and bodily resources in detriment of other skills. This differentiates us from the rest of the animals. But, what was in it for us? Was this effort of evolution worth it? Why did hominids start speaking and what does it have to do with the fact that we heroically continue our fight against foreign prepositions and verb conjugations when we might as well be spending our time and money on something lighter and more enjoyable? What’s the big prize in language learning?
Researchers at the University of Barcelona in collaboration with scientists from Germany (Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg) and United Kingdom (University of Manchester) have conducted an experiment in order to understand what happens in our brain when we learn new words. What’s interesting here is that they compared two different activities: the way our brain reacts to successful word learning and the way it reacts to gambling, as both seem to elicit activity in the reward centre of our brain. This “reward system” is exactly what the phrase suggests: a system that regulates adaptative behaviour so that dopamine and other neurotransmitters that make us feel good are released when we do something that is beneficial to us, like winning money from a gambling game, learning a new skill, eating a nice meal, having sex or drinking a couple of pints. Well, the latter isn’t necessarily a beneficial activity, but neither are drugs, sugar or junk food, substances famous for their harmful addictive effect on the reward system, because they alter the natural course of things by accelerating the feelgood effect, even though we are doing something that is actually not so healthy for us.
So what’s so sexy about learning words in a new language? The really important finding in this study is that a connection has been found between activity in the reward system area and those involved in language processing and word learning. This provides a plausible explanation for the origin of language and its use as an adaptive advantage in human evolution. This learning-reward system seems to work as a reinforcement for human motivation to learn a new language. This might have provided a crucial advantage to humans in the early days of the species, pushing them to acquire the skills needed to develop a complex communication system superior to those of other species.
After all, human communication isn’t just a need, but also a pleasure. Language allowed humans to share information and emotions, and so improved their chances of survival as the new skill could be used for social bonding and to exchange crucial information about their surroundings. Just like physical features that were considered sexually attractive and thus related to offspring survival, language could also provide a competitive advantage in mating for those who could master it. Just like being top of your English class.
Still thinking that learning vocab doesn’t feel good? Have a go at our list below and get those dopamine levels up!
- Chore (n): it can be a small, routinary task, but the word also refers to hard or unpleasant tasks, such as cleaning or studying grammar.
- Feat (n): a noteworthy act or achievement
- Milestone (n): a significant or import event in history
- Gambling (n, from the verb “gamble”): playing games of chance to win money, as for instance roulette or slot machines.
- Elicit (v): to evoke, bring out, give rise to.
- Mating (n, from the verb “mate”): pairing for reproduction