• Alysa Salzberg

Does your ability to learn a language depend on your DNA?

A team of Chinese neuroscientists has discovered a gene variant that may play a role in language learning.


That statement might have you imagining all sorts of scenarios. Could translators and interpreters mention having this gene variant in their resumes? Would it be unfair to grade language class assignments in the same way for students who have or don’t have the gene variant?


But it turns out that the gene variant in question really only has an influence on one aspect of language – and to what extent is up for debate.


The scientists discovered that a variant of the ASPM gene may influence our ability to differentiate between tones. That’s linguistically significant because about half of the world’s spoken languages use intonation to change a word’s meaning.


So some of those scenarios you might have been thinking about probably won’t be an issue. For instance, languages that don’t use tone aren’t concerned here.


And while the presence of this gene may indeed influence a person’s understanding of a language, tests have determined that characteristics like IQ and musical training have an even greater influence.


Still, the study’s results are intriguing. Even if DNA doesn’t play the most significant role in our ability to comprehend and acquire language skills, maybe there is something to it.


There are other implications, as well. For instance, the scientists who discovered the gene variant have suggested that groups that have it may tend to create linguistic systems that use tonal differences, providing a fascinating theory for the development of language.


Read on to learn more about the scientists’ findings.



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